CBS news reported that Memphis has one of the worst unemployment rates for any major American city. The 2015 report also points out Memphis has a shrinking tax base, urban blight and a high violent crime rate, which has created the economic problems in Memphis. CBS listed Memphis as the fourth poorest city in America. This is not the recognition Tennessee wants for our communities and municipalities.
However, rather than simply focusing on the negative we have to look for the talents, skills, ideas, and creativity of our citizens in places of such despair. It is there in Memphis in abundance, just as it is found across our entire state. We just do not hear about the ingenuity or success of our entrepreneurial spirt or see it highlighted like we should. In the state where the greatest civil rights warrior in American history, Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered for his beliefs, we should never surrender to despair.
Make no mistake, our educators face unbelievable challenges across the state, especially with low-social economic students. We take all students. This includes students who have a lack of preparation, limited vocabulary, poor nutrition, lack of medical care, high mobility, dysfunctional families, lack of English, and lack of enrichment. This does not even factor in mental, physical and health challenges. That is not an excuse, nor should we accept diminished expectations because of race or economic conditions. The idiom “soft bigotry of low expectations” is still alive and well in some circles, but we must reject it once and for all. As Danielle Belton, Editor-in-Chief of The Root said, “If you go into the game expecting to lose, you are most certain to find failure.”
In Memphis, there is hope being realized in the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone (iZone). In Chattanooga, Hamilton County is launching a similar vehicle to address the challenge of chronically under-performing schools. Leaders are working together to design different schedules, as well as oversight models, implementing creative content coaching, and empowering their principals with autonomy to be creative. They are hiring new teachers in hard to staff schools with better compensation. We are meeting children where they are.
In Memphis, the results are somewhat promising, in comparison to the state’s own Achievement School District. Test scores in the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone have increased faster than other school improvement efforts. Some of the chronically under-performing schools have now moved off of the state’s Priority list. The model can be replicated, with the right leadership and support. We must enhance and sustain student engagement and transform school culture. They are finding beauty in broken places in Memphis.
Test scores are not the most important measure in our schools. It is the intangible factor of the human will to succeed despite obstacles. As Hanna Skandera, former Commissioner of Education of New Mexico wrote: “we cannot ignore the need for our system to be agile and adaptable, and proactively develop new ways to prepare the next generation in an ever-changing world.” This means that as educators we must build a system that gives students the educational foundation to succeed, despite whatever dire circumstances our students may come out of personally. Martin Luther King Jr reminded us, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Let’s strive to educate all of our kids to their highest potential, no matter where they live.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.