Board approves University of Memphis middle school and teaching lab

The University of Memphis is set to open its second K-12 school this fall.

The Shelby County Schools board approved a five-year contract on Tuesday night to open University Middle in August. The school will serve up to 65 sixth-graders in its first year, and has plans to serve 270 students in grades 6-8 by 2021. Applications are slated to become available 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The middle school will serve as a teaching lab for aspiring educators and be the first middle school in the district to offer “project-based learning,” which focuses more on real-life application of lessons and less on tests. The university’s decades-old elementary, Campus School, will be a feeder for the new middle school.

“I think this is a great project and we’ll be able to produce quality teachers out of this,” Board Member Scott McCormick said.

The district hopes the new specialty school will attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students.

Under the contract with the district, the University of Memphis and its Board of Trustees would oversee the school, but some services would come from Shelby County Schools. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff, for example.

The school has been a long time coming. When plans came before school board members in November, some questioned how the university would achieve its student racial diversity goals alongside its academic requirements for admission. Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning and the district is about 91 percent non-white.

The University of Memphis since removed the academic requirement. Under revised admission rules, students need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals to qualify.

University Middle will be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“I will be watching closely how the administration monitors both the performance as well as the demographics of this school,” Kevin Woods, a school board member, told university officials. “Your actions will ultimately determine future partnerships.”

The university aims for a third of students to be children of University of Memphis full-time faculty and staff, a third to live within two miles of the school, and a third to be from elsewhere in the district. Graduates of Campus School will have priority and any other available seats for students will be selected through lottery.

The middle school is set to occupy the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Under the contract, University of Memphis will be responsible for building costs, staffing and salaries, and transportation for students. Shelby County Schools will provide cafeteria services and special education services, including gifted education teachers, speech therapists, nurses, physical therapists, and educational assistants.

Also under the agreement, teachers and administrators from the district will be able to visit and observe University Middle classrooms as part of an effort to share best practices.

A director for the school is expected to be announced by the end of March, a university official said.