Memphis education stakeholders have watched for decades with exasperation as a steady exodus of middle-class students have drained local public schools of talent, engaged families, and funding.
That’s one of the motivations inspiring some of those same stakeholders to push for the creation of a new public high school in midtown Memphis called Crosstown. They want to recapture many of those students and families and provide an option for parents seeking an integrated college prep track within Shelby County Schools.
But exactly how to go about that has presented a challenge for Crosstown supporters, who say they want a rigorous academic school, as well as a school that reflects the city’s racial and economic diversity. As they seek to open Crosstown High School in the fall of 2017, backers now must walk a fine line of navigating the local political environment within Shelby County Schools, a district that is trying to lift the academic performance of all its schools and students, not just to provide a few high-quality options for an elite few.
As education leaders ponder what they want Crosstown to be, here are issues they have to address head on.
Contract school or charter school?
Supporters would prefer Crosstown to be a contract school, though they’re also seeking a local authorization to operate as a charter. With school board approval, both avenues would go through Shelby County Schools and would offer autonomous governance on matters such as curriculum, hiring and school culture.
A contract school would have an independent board. An example in Memphis is Campus Elementary School, which is a contract school operated through a partnership between the district and the University of Memphis. The contract avenue could give its board more control over student enrollment.
Charter schools also are publicly funded but independently operated schools but must be open to all students. They typically use a lottery system for admissions.
The choice of contract vs. charter has huge implications when it comes to enrollment and what demographic of students that Crosstown would serve.
The school’s original plan was to screen students for academic ability, which a contract school could do but a charter school could not.
“[A contract arrangement] could allow the school to more easily maintain the diverse student body we seek,” said Ginger Spickler, a Memphis parent and founder of the Memphis School Guide, who wants to see Crosstown achieve diversity in academics, race and socioeconomics.
“But even if it’s a charter, we intend to be very intentional in our recruiting efforts to make sure that the lottery pool also reflects the diverse student body we hope for,” said Spickler, who is also a contributor to the Crosstown group’s application to a national contest to reinvent America’s high schools.
What students will Crosstown serve?
Based on its original plan, the vision for Crosstown High’s enrollment is to align most closely with the city’s racial breakdown, not necessarily the demographics of Shelby County Schools.
The economic breakdown of Crosstown’s first charter application targets a student population in which half of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. That’s up from the first proposal floated to the school board in January that listed a goal of having at least 35 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
Almost 80 percent of district students are considered economically disadvantaged, while about 27 percent of Memphians live in poverty.
If it becomes a selective school, how would Crosstown impact the district as a whole?
Crosstown backers say the school would be a win for the district by filling a need for a strong college prep high school track for midtown Memphis, one of the city’s most diverse residential areas.
But a selective school, with greater control over enrollment, also could drain other district-run schools of some of their top-performing students, particularly in optional programs at Central High or Middle College High, as well as “second-tier” private high schools, according to Marcus Pohlmann, a Rhodes College professor and author who has chronicled the history of Memphis schools.
Even so, Pohlmann believes a Crosstown selective option would benefit Memphis as a whole in the long run.
“That gets lost in the discussion rather quickly,” he said. “We’re losing kids to the private school system and potential students whose families might come to Memphis.”
Crosstown backers are quick to say that their school isn’t designed to compete with existing schools such as Central High, located less than two miles away, but to fill a gap in Memphis’ education landscape as an integrated, academically elite public high school.
“Our vision is to be diverse school that attracts both students on free and reduced-price lunch and students who had left public school for privates,” said Meg Crosby, a member of the Crosstown board.
That diversity, say Crosstown supporters, is best achieved through the governance of a contract school.
“We’ll make it work either way, but becoming a charter school does tie our hands in terms of enrollment guidelines,” Crosby said.
What does the immediate future hold for Crosstown supporters?
Since Crosstown’s charter application didn’t make the first cut for approval in June by Shelby County’s school board, backers are retooling their proposal based on the board’s feedback.
Brad Leon, in charge of strategy and innovation for the district, said it’s typical for charter applications not to make the first cut, and that most don’t need a total overhaul. However, he would not speak directly to Crosstown’s application.
The Crosstown board will take its revised application back to the district later this month for the board to review in August.
But even as they seek charter authorization, the Crosstown board will try to negotiate the contract option with Shelby County Schools, according to John Smarrelli, president of Christian Brothers University and chairman of the Crosstown board.
Not only would a contract school provide more flexibility in enrollment, there’s also the matter of money. Under state law, a Crosstown charter school would cost the district $7,748 per student.
“We can negotiate a better deal for [the district] as a contract,” Smarrelli said. “There’s nothing that says once it’s approved as charter that we have to be charter.”
Conversations with school board members about the Crosstown board’s intentions appear to be lacking, however.
Chris Caldwell, whose midtown district includes the proposed school, said contract school negotiations aren’t happening at the board level. And Miska Clay Bibbs, also on the school board, said she thought the contract school proposal was off the table after the two parties couldn’t agree on terms, precipitating Crosstown’s charter application.
Also in the picture is Crosstown’s submission in the national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Five schools across America are scheduled to learn in August whether they’ll be awarded $10 million each as part of the reinvention of America’s high schools. In its application to the contest, Crosstown is marketed as a college prep school that would appeal to the city’s middle class.
Corrections & clarifications: July 15, 2016: This version corrects a previous version that incorrectly stated Crosstown’s demographic goals for serving economically disadvantaged students, based on its first charter application. The application cites a goal of having 50 percent of its student population being economically disadvantaged, up from a previous proposal of at least 35 percent. This story also clarifies that Crosstown would not be an academically selective school, but would also consider racial and socioeconomic background in its selection process.