Memphis school board OKs new University of Memphis high school despite concerns

A young student walks with another person outside a school next to a road with cars driving along.
Shelby County Schools board members approved an agreement with the University of Memphis for a new University High School on Tuesday evening. Some board members raised concerns about the speed of the deal, saying that it was faster than the usual approval process. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Shelby County Schools board members green-lighted a new University of Memphis high school on Tuesday night, despite some members’ complaints that the proposal skipped typical procedures.

The 6-2 vote in favor of a memorandum of understanding means the university is one step closer to having complete K-12 offerings. The University of Memphis already has an elementary school, called Campus School, which was founded as Training School in 1912, and it added University Middle School in 2019. Both are laboratory schools, meaning they offer clinical teaching experiences and mentoring for future educators, in addition to conducting research on effective educational techniques. 

University High School, too, will be a laboratory school, and will use hands-on, project-based learning, according to the school’s literature. The elementary and middle schools serve 732 students. Under the new agreement, the university will be able to serve about 318 in high school, giving it 1,050 in grades K-12. A third of the student body would be drawn from students whose parents are full-time university faculty or staff at the K-12 schools, while another third would come from students who live within two miles of the university, and the final third would be open to students districtwide.

The agreement with the University of Memphis also calls for the school to take “reasonable steps” to create a diverse student population.

The schools’ student population is not representative of the city. Memphis is 64% Black, while University Middle and Campus School are 40% and 24% Black, respectively, according to state data. University Middle is 47% white, while Campus School is about 64% white, making it the most segregated elementary school in Memphis.

Students at the schools also are far more affluent than children in Memphis. About 35% of children in the city are considered low-income, while in the neighborhood around the University of Memphis, roughly the 38111 zip code, about 45% of children live in poverty, according to the university’s research. At University Middle and Campus School, just 12.5% and 8% of students, respectively, are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data.

Two board members, Stephanie Love and outgoing chair Miska Clay Bibbs, raised concerns about the seemingly speedy timeline for approval of the proposal. Love said she didn’t think it was right to approve the memorandum of understanding when it was just presented to the board at a work session a week ago. The process to approve charter schools or partnerships of this nature is usually lengthy, she said.

“Board members, we set the tone for how we operate and how we do business at 160 South Hollywood,” Love said, stating the address of the Board of Education. “I do think that we are doing our district a disservice and we are doing all of those who have entrusted us to follow processes a disservice ... when something so important is passed in this short length of time.

“Regardless of how good it looks or how happy it sounds or whatever, we have an obligation to do the right thing,” she added.

Bibbs, who has stressed process and procedure during her tenure as chair, joined Love in voting against the proposal Tuesday, saying that the process had been inequitable. 

“Let’s be real clear about the precedent that we’re setting to be able to vote on something in a week’s time. That’s a huge concern of mine,” she said. “I’m just saying process-wise, I am very disappointed in administration in how this has been handled.”

Superintendent Joris Ray said the compressed timeline felt appropriate because the operating agreement was not for a new charter school but for an expansion of an existing laboratory or “training school.” He added that the University of Memphis had been a great partner with the district. 

The University of Memphis is one of a growing number of institutions across the region where Shelby County high school students can earn college credit as part of a dual enrollment program, and the new high school will be included. Other dual enrollment programs include Hollis F. Price Middle College High School and Middle College High School. And the district also has a partnership with Bethel University.

Earlier this year, officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Medical District High School, which lies on Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Union campus and allows school students to earn their high school diploma and associate degree with a concentration in allied health, information technology, or general studies.

The district’s efforts follow a national boom in dual enrollment programs. While disparities to access remain, studies have found that students who participate in dual enrollment programs often graduate at a higher rate and earlier than their peers of similar backgrounds in traditional high school programs. The American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Arlington, Va., contributes part of that success to “instructional rigor” and “college-going culture.”

According to the organization’s 2019 report, “Overall, evidence of the academic benefits associated with dual enrollment has been consistent across study designs, study sites, and types of dual-enrollment programs.”

This fall, the University of Memphis offered about 20 dual enrollment courses. With the addition of its high school, the college plans to offer more than 60 dual enrollment courses over the course of the school year, adding classes such as creative writing, sports history, and education psychology research. 

Board member Sheleah Harris did not vote, but the majority of board members spoke in support of the new high school at the Tuesday meeting. Board member Billy Orgell called the University of Memphis a “bright spot” in the city that deserves their support.

“Let’s reward somebody who’s done a great job with students from all across our community in educating them, and has done so for many years,” he said.

Board member Althea Greene agreed. “I’m just excited about the district moving forward and just building relationships in the community,” said Greene, who was elected vice chair of the board on Tuesday in a separate vote. 

The board also elected Michelle McKissack as its new board chair. McKissack beat out Love, and Greene won over board member Joyce Dorse Coleman. It was the first time the chair position has been contested since 2013, said Bibbs.

Julia Baker contributed reporting.

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