In Memphis Classrooms, the Ghost of Segregation Lingers On

Thirty years ago, the school district tried and failed to bring black and white students together. Will its latest effort undermine one of the city's most successful schools?


Manassas High School students peruse books during a Reading is Fundamental rally. (AP Photo/Jim Weber)

Samantha Crawford, an 18-year-old high-school senior, doesn't like to use the word "ghetto" to describe her neighborhood in the center of Memphis, Tennessee, but she can't think of a better one. In Binghampton, people drink and hang out. They are transient, moving from apartment to apartment and job to job. Many don't work at all. Samantha speculates that few have finished college, or even high school.

In the past two years, though, Samantha has begun to look at her neighborhood as an inspiration. "It's not about where I stay, or wherever I come from, but what I'm going to make of it," she says.

Samantha once earned only Bs and Cs. Now, she makes straight As. She had dreamed of college, but wasn't sure how she'd get there. Now, she's feeling overwhelmed by the choices available to her. In the past few months, she received five college acceptance letters, along with a scholarship to a local community college.

She attributes her success to her family, by which she means her mom, but also her teachers and principal at Manassas High School, located across town in North Memphis. "If you fail at Manassas..." she says, before stopping herself. "I don't see how that's possible."

The reforms that drove her school's success are now up in the air, however. A contentious merger plan with the suburban school district surrounding Memphis has roiled the city, jeopardizing an effort to overhaul the struggling district and setting up a potential clash between the two leading approaches to school reform.

Manassas, an all-black, nearly all-poor school, has a lot going for it: a new building, a new set of intensely dedicated teachers who willingly work on Saturdays, and the attention -- and money -- of national foundations and advocacy groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The principal, James Griffin, is a soft-spoken former football player who wears rectangular glasses and immaculate suits and spends his days in classrooms, monitoring and helping teachers. He makes personal calls to students who fall behind.

The school could be a poster child for the "no-excuses" education reform movement, which argues that schools and teachers should be able to help all students succeed, regardless of the challenges they face outside of school -- including broken families, violence and poverty. Last year, 111 of 131 seniors who applied to college were accepted. (The graduating class was 150.) The previous year, only 25 graduating seniors had been accepted.

Manassas is among a handful of schools in Memphis that have successfully piloted reforms based on the no-excuses ideas that have also driven the charter-school movement. Administrators expect the success to spread this year, following a full slate of changes, including a new intensive teacher-evaluation system with multiple classroom observations per year that was rolled out in the fall. Indispensable to the project has been a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supplemented by funding from local donors. The money has paid for consultants who helped hire new mission-driven principals and teachers like Griffin, and new technology, including video cameras to record teachers in the classroom. It will eventually fund bonus pay for teachers who raise student achievement.

But last winter, the Memphis school board essentially gave up, endangering the reform work when they voted to dissolve the school district into the whiter, wealthier suburban district that rings the city. The merger means the city school board will have to disband and be replaced by a joint city-suburban board. The administrators who initiated the reform effort may be removed.

City voters upheld the move, which was partly about money. The suburban county that encompasses Memphis has always helped fund education within the city. Although the suburbs run their own schools, they are not completely autonomous. A state law passed in 1982 banned them from breaking away into an independent school district -- something many suburban areas were interested in doing in the aftermath of school desegregation, when white families fleeing from cities and towns filled up suburban neighborhoods.

Until now, this meant that Memphis could benefit from suburban funding while maintaining its own board and making its own decisions about how the money would be spent. But when Republicans took over the state assembly in 2010, it seemed likely they would repeal the 1982 law, making it possible for the suburbs to finally create their own district and withdraw their fiscal support. The Memphis school board acted before they had a chance to do so: By choosing to dissolve into the wealthier surrounding district, the board essentially decided to give up the school district's autonomy in order to keep the funds rolling in.

Memphis school board members and administrators cite another reason for the merger, however. For the district to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, school officials say they need to share not just funding with middle-class schools, but also, if possible, students, teachers, and the involved parents who help drive suburban success. "We know that if there's diversity, and it's socioeconomic diversity, those students tend to perform better. It's less homogenous," says Tomeka Hart, a school board member and president of the Memphis Urban League.

Consolidating with the county schools is not just about protecting funding. It's a last-ditch effort to revive the goals of the school desegregation movement from a half-century ago. For two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Memphis schools remained starkly segregated. In 1973, a federal court ordered Memphis to integrate its schools using busing, but the program met with massive resistance from whites. Many fled for the suburbs or private schools. "Clearly people feel like this is a continuation of something," says Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who has studied school desegregation in Memphis. "In many ways it is, from an ideas standpoint."

Now, the two reform movements -- one that argues schools should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve on their own, and another that argues schools are constrained by conditions beyond their control like poverty and segregation -- are on a collision course in Memphis. The merger, which will be completed by next year, has led some to worry that Gates could pull its funds and the reforms could come to a halt, while suburban residents have protested against joining their school district with the high-minority, high-poverty Memphis schools. Although Memphis leaders have said a revival of busing for either white or black students is highly unlikely, fears among parents persist. Some towns in the suburbs are now talking of setting up their own separate districts. Both opponents and advocates have warned that many white families could move out of the county altogether.

Despite the obstacles, school leaders are hoping the merger could present a third way to the warring sides in the larger debate about how to reform education. The Memphis school superintendent, Kriner Cash, who has led the teacher-focused reform effort, is excited about the city-county merger -- even though it could mean he loses his job.

"This is controversial," he says, acknowledging that his views on the merger may clash with the no-excuses doctrine that has defined his tenure in the district. "The gap closes when folks go to school together, when they play together, when they're in afterschool programs together, and when they live in the same communities together," he says. "It's a both-and. It's not an either-or. That is the vision of this new district for me."

*     *     *

Memphis is a place of contrasts. It's the poorest large metropolitan area in America, according to the latest census data. Inside the city limits, rundown houses and liquor stores barricaded behind iron bars make the poverty palpable. The city spans a lot of land, and in many places it is sparsely populated, with empty lots stretching across multiple acres.

Education researchers have long known that poverty is linked to low student achievement, and Memphis hasn't been an exception. The city schools are the worst in Tennessee, which in turn ranks near the bottom on national achievement tests.

Beyond the city limits, however, new suburban malls bustle with activity. Housing along the inner ring is showing its age, but large houses with sweeping lawns have gone up on the outskirts. Shelby County encompasses the city, but has its own semi-independent school district covering the suburban areas. (Some tax funding is shared, but the school districts are run separately.) It is one of the wealthiest districts in the state. The percentage of students who pass state exams in the suburbs is more than double the percentage in the city.

The city's deep divides are partly a function of a previous effort to unite it 40 years ago. In 1968, the city's schools were two-thirds white and a third black. Just five years later, once the busing initiative began, the ratio flipped: Two-thirds of students were black, and a third were white.

In the first year of busing, the old Manassas High School was refitted with air conditioning and enrolled some white students, but integration didn't last long. When Samantha Crawford's mother, Quintonia, attended Manassas in the mid-1980s, only two white students were enrolled, and both lived in the neighborhood. It was a good school then -- discipline was strict, she says -- but it's even better now.

"When Mr. Griffin got there, he promoted college a lot more than it had been promoted," says Crawford, who didn't go to college herself and who now works as a hotel banquet server. "And they have some great teachers."

The school, now in a brand-new building paid for in part by suburban tax dollars, stands on a desolate stretch of road in northern Memphis. Nearby, an abandoned chimney reaching out of an empty field is all that remains of an old Firestone factory. The only other signs of life are a Baptist church and a liquor store. The 550 students at Manassas don't fill the cavernous space, which has room for twice as many. Even during class changes, the school has a hushed, empty feel to it.

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