Manassas was built on what used to be housing projects, meaning a major source of students no longer exists. But the small size allows for Griffin, the principal, to pay close attention to the remaining students. After calling a child who has fallen behind, Griffin often brings in the family to see him in person. He once traveled to the workplace of a mother who couldn't make it to the school.
Griffin -- trained by one of the private groups that have flocked to the city in the last three years to help improve its struggling schools -- has been on the job a year and a half. Many of the teachers are also new after Griffin replaced nearly half the staff. Classes of 15 students spread out in classrooms big enough for 40, with banks of computers lining the walls. Empty rooms have been converted into a student "dorm room," where seniors research colleges, a "data lounge," for the teachers to study student progress on weekly tests, and a museum to commemorate Manassas High's century-long legacy as an all-black school. "Find a way, or make a way" is Griffin's slogan.
Griffin's belief that teachers alone can raise the achievement and aspirations of children who live in poverty is based on experience. He was born when his mother was in eighth grade and lived with his grandparents after they kicked his mother out of the house. They were solidly working-class; his grandmother was a school custodian and his grandfather a factory worker. They spoiled him, but weekends at the house often got out of hand. He remembers his grandmother playing dice with the neighbors, and lots of alcohol. On one occasion, his mother stopped by to see him and found him drunk. He was four.
After a court battle, his mother gained custody and took him in, but she also struggled to provide a good home. She already had another baby, and soon had three more. She was illiterate, so Griffin read the mail out loud to her every afternoon. The family lived on $260 a month, and often slept on relatives' couches. They also spent time in a homeless shelter. On at least one night, they slept on the street. By the time he reached 12th grade, Griffin had attended 11 different schools. He was often in trouble, and barely passing his classes.
In his last year, one of his teachers pushed him to try for college. He did extra-credit assignments to bring up his grades, and took the ACT six times before he scored high enough to be eligible for admission. The University of Tennessee-Martin accepted him on a football scholarship. From there, he eventually earned his master's degree and became a teacher. He's now working on a doctorate.
Griffin says his childhood mirrors that of many of his students at Manassas, where 95 percent of students are poor and 99 percent are minorities. In Memphis as a whole, 87 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals. Two-thirds come from single-parent families. Nearly a third of students change schools each year. Griffin often uses his life story to remind his teachers and students that people who believe poverty is an excuse for failure are wrong.
"They say you've got to have a middle-class parent to make sure a child is successful, but what about me? Was I an anomaly?" he says. "I had teachers that kept me in the game and got me to stay in school, and that's what it takes."
Quincy Hassell lives in a working-class black neighborhood in East Memphis and moved around to various schools within Memphis before ending up at Manassas this year. Already he has internalized Griffin's message. Quincy went from a 1.8 grade-point average last year to a 3.5 this year. He's aiming for a 3.8, and out of the 10 colleges he applied to, five have already accepted him. "At this school, they woke me up," Quincy says. "Do you want to be on the corner begging for money, or do you want to do something with yourself?"
Griffin's conviction that all children can succeed with enough teacher attention and skill is also grounded in necessity. After busing failed in Memphis -- and many cities like it -- teachers and principals in urban schools were left to make the best of very difficult student populations. Although research has shown that the more concentrated the poverty in a school, the worse children perform, the latest generation of education reformers has seized on evidence that teachers are the single greatest factor affecting a child's learning in school.
Memphis appears to be further proof that segregated urban schools can improve despite the odds. In 2011, the school district posted the biggest test-score gains in the state.
Josh Edelman, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the progress on adopting reforms in Memphis is "exciting." Although the merger vote prompted some Memphis leaders to worry that Gates would pull its funds, the foundation has said it will stay committed to the city, "as long as effective teaching and improved outcomes for all students remains a top priority." Edelman says he's hoping the merger of the two districts will allow the teacher-focused work to expand to a larger number of students.
The suburban district is pursuing its own programs to improve teaching. The merger has pitted the two bureaucracies against each other, however, and administrators in both systems have become defensive about their reform strategies, and dismissive of the other side's efforts.
"I think the achievement gap takes a lot of different approaches to close. It starts with great teachers and great leadership," Edelman says. "And I do think kids learn a lot from each other."
Griffin and his supervisors in the Memphis district offices argue that this mixing of students is what is missing in their efforts. What if the barriers between inner-city and suburban schools were broken down, so students could learn from one other? And what if then, Manassas could combine its intensive academics with another sort of education, in which students pick up the social and cultural tools they will need to negotiate the outside world they'll someday encounter? What if the struggling schools in Memphis didn't have to turn themselves around alone?
"It's not that children are smarter" in the suburbs, says Cash, who studied integration as a master's student at Stanford University and led the schools in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., for nine years. "They've had more exposure to the things that equate to school-smart ... concepts, words and experiences that equate to book-knowledge, and to test-knowledge."
Integrating schools isn't enough to completely close the achievement gap, but research has also found that mixing students by race and class can significantly improve their outcomes. "We ought to have the best ingredients for our students," Griffin says. "That mixing would enhance their world."
After taking over at Manassas last year, Griffin tried to add in that missing element to his school. Most of his students have never left the city limits, and many have never left their immediate neighborhood, he says. Few have had exposure to adults with white-collar jobs besides their teachers. Even if his students do well in high school, it's unclear they'll make it through college, where they will have to fend for themselves in a more diverse environment. Nationally, only 40 percent of black college students graduate from college, compared to 60 percent of whites. Minority graduation rates are the worst at public universities and community colleges -- the types of schools where most Manassas students go.
Griffin talked to a private school in the suburbs about creating an exchange, so the students could meet occasionally to talk about where they were from and learn from one another. The planning was going well, until, Griffin says, the private-school administrators realized his vision included not just trips to the suburbs for his students, but trips to Manassas for the white students. The private school backed out.
The Memphis merger could present a new opportunity to continue the reforms introduced by Cash, while also allowing city schools and their more affluent neighbors to exchange resources, teachers and perhaps, someday, students. Irving Hamer, a deputy superintendent in Memphis, says that the "unspoken intent" is to "attempt to do some reconciliation between race and class here."
When the district expands to encompass the entire county, students both inside the city limits and out in the suburbs will ostensibly have wider choices about where to go to school, which could provide opportunities for voluntary student mixing. For years, the city has been able to retain its small proportion of white students largely through a set of selective magnet schools that are attractive to middle-class families. In a joint suburban-city district, poor students from the inner city might also have the option of choosing a suburban school instead of the one in their neighborhood. (Manassas, for example, has attracted students from all over the city district because of its improving reputation.)
But Hamer says a new round of busing is a very unlikely outcome of the merger. "We've had our busing episodes, and we're not reinventing those," he says. "It's not coming back." Instead, he predicts the merger could lead suburban areas to separate from the consolidated district and white families to move away.
Last November, more than 100 residents of Bartlett, a small city situated just over the county line from Memphis, gathered for a town meeting in a converted church. Nearly all were white, although the number of black residents in Bartlett has increased to 16 percent in recent years. (The racial make-up of the suburbs has changed significantly in the past decade as many black middle-class residents of Memphis have moved in, often in search of better schools.) After a long prayer by a local pastor, the mayor, Keith McDonald, told the crowd that more than 1,000 students had left the local schools since the Memphis school board voted to dissolve itself the previous year.
"The people in Memphis don't get it," he said. "If these people leave, the burden goes up on all of us."
Bartlett, along with two other towns in Shelby County, is now considering whether to create a separate school district -- under the same state law that prompted the merger -- before the two districts join next year. A consultant released a report this January suggesting a new district wouldn't put too great a burden on the towns' taxpayers. It is unclear if they will have to buy the school buildings from the county, however, which could be costly. And the state law is likely to face challenges in court by advocates of the consolidation.
Many residents believe the cost will be worth it. "I would rather the decisions about our schools be made by my neighbors, rather than an entire metro area that maybe doesn't have the best interest of my kids at heart," said Chris Huffstetler, 43, a 14-year Bartlett resident and father of three, at the town meeting. "I trust you guys. I trust my neighbors." The audience broke into applause.
Later, his wife, Lisa Huffstetler, 46, explained that while she understood that difficult home lives of students are a challenge for Memphis, the district has a history of corruption and misspending money. "We've watched them make ridiculous decisions, one after the other," she says. "We're terrified for the education of our kids."
Samantha Crawford, who wants to be a criminal profiler, a career she learned about on TV, hopes the suburban towns won't secede. She has studied the merger, and thinks it could lift Memphis schools to new heights. "Some people don't know this, but schools in Cordova and Germantown, they challenge them harder than they challenge us," she says, referring to the suburbs. "If we all get together and become as one, we'll get a better education."
The merger seems to have inspired school reformers in Memphis to broaden their hopes about what's possible in school reform, but Manassas's gleaming but half-empty halls may never be filled with a blend of middle-class and lower-income students. "If we're going to get the kind of pop where the Memphis city schools aren't the bottom percent of schools in the state, which ... they will always be because of the poverty," says Cash, "then what you have to do is you have to get kids into the same classes." Without that mix, some now say, the achievement gap may shrink, but it won't close completely.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.