Tent City

Here’s the optional school that has Memphis parents camping out in January

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools' central office in 2016 in Memphis, where parents have camped out every January in recent years to apply for select optional schools. The application process moves completely online in 2018.

Bundled up in coats, hats and gloves and sitting in a circle around a portable heater, parents Ginger Lord, Sandra Yarbrough and Teresa Starling explained what is motivating them to camp outside of Shelby County Schools’ headquarters building for six days amid freezing temperatures, rain, snow and hail.

Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding their spot at this year's "tent city."
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding spots at this year’s “tent city.”

The first in line on Wednesday to apply for the district’s optional schools next Monday, all three are seeking a spot for their children in the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a 2-year-old optional middle school that has become the school of choice for families seeking a high-achievement public education for their kids in Memphis.

“There’s 50 spots for sixth grade at STEAM for students outside of the district,” explains Yarbrough of Cordova, a Memphis bedroom community that lies outside of the school’s zone. “They can’t guarantee me I’ll get a spot. There were over 1,300 parents here last year. So, I’m third in line. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Shelby County Schools offers 47 optional schools and programs, each with theme-based learning designed to fit children’s needs and interests in a district known primarily for low-performing schools.

Every year for the last decade or so, parents have camped on the central office lawn during the week before optional school applications are distributed in order to secure a spot for their children. The hot schools vary from year to year. Among them have been White Station Middle, Grahamwood Elementary and Snowden Middle — all with academic programs that put kids on the college prep track.

This year, the hot school is Maxine Smith STEAM Academy for grades 6-8, which offers an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. The school has a partnership with Christian Brothers University, a highly regarded Catholic school in midtown Memphis, and each student is issued an electronic tablet as part of the school’s blended learning program. There are rigorous honors courses, and students must have mostly As and Bs and score at or above the 65th percentile on state achievement tests to be eligible to attend.

The district created the school two years ago to increase options for parents seeking high-performing middle schools with a STEM focus.

“Parents have told me that they’re hearing about how great STEAM is at their workplaces, or their church. They’re hearing about STEAM in their communities,” said Linda Sklar, director of optional schools.

She adds that STEAM has a reputation as a small school with exceptional teachers and a strong principal, Lischa Brooks.

It’s enough motivation for parents like Lord, Yarbrough and Starling to endure wet and cold weather and make arrangements for a six-day campout in the middle of Memphis.

As the first parents in line, they have certain responsibilities, including keeping a roll of all parents who are camping out before district officials hand out applications with numbered bar codes beginning at 6:30 a.m. next Monday. About 30 parents were already on the rolls for this year’s “tent city” by Thursday.

Each year, parents complain that there’s got to be a better system. And each year, district administrators assure them that there is. They say camping out isn’t necessary.

“I know at this point, it’s almost a type of tradition,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said during a school board meeting on Tuesday. “But the data suggests there’s no need to camp out.”

Last January, Sklar said, “99.9 percent of the 2,717 people that applied on the first day were able to get in a school of their choice, if their child met the requirements.”

She offers that message every year when she talks with parents camping out. “And they tell me, ‘Linda, if you can hand me a letter saying my kid is approved, then I’ll go home.’ And of course, I can’t do that,” she said.

Principal Lischa Brooks meets with parents during an open house this week at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Principal Lischa Brooks meets with parents during an open house this week at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.

Next school year, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy will have 100 openings for sixth-grade students. Fifty spots are reserved for students who live within 2 miles of the school; the rest for those who live beyond that radius.

Parents say they don’t know what a solution to camping out would look like, but it might be to develop more high-quality schools like STEAM.

“The best way would be for every child to have the same quality of education,” said Elizabeth Manoah, camping out to get her son in STEAM. “For people to have to wait in order for their child to get a quality school, … that’s not right.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”