The Shelby County school board is adding two new seats this year, increasing in size from seven members to nine. This is in part to give more representation to areas outside of Memphis that are not part of any of the six new suburban school districts.
This year, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 students are expected to attend Shelby County Schools from unincorporated areas—areas that are within Shelby County, but not part of a city or town. Candidates say students and parents in these suburban and rural areas have different concerns and preferences than the Memphis residents who make up the majority of the district.
The preponderance of these parents will vote in Districts 3 and 5. Chalkbeat reached out to the school board candidates from Districts 3 and 5 to discuss the concerns of suburban and rural Shelby County Schools voters. Interviews with each candidate that responded are presented below, edited for length and clarity.
Concerns about representation: We had an ice storm last year and a lot of parents were upset about the fact that the board didn’t consider the rural areas when it came to shutting down the schools for one day. They kept the schools open based on inner-city information. Buses got into a few accidents and parents had to put themselves in jeopardy.
Overcrowding: Cordova High School is overcrowded, so [the district] is having students who are supposed to attend Cordova High attend Germantown High School. In my opinion another high school in the area is necessary.
Private school and home school: Students [in rural unincorporated areas] basically are either home-schooled or private-schooled, those are the major choice for the parents and students out in this area. The biggest concern is that we’re so far removed from that inner 240 loop. We just want our educational voices to be heard during the board meetings.
Lack of communication: Many parents out in this area still feel that Memphis City Schools is Shelby County Schools even though Shelby County Schools is a legal entity. It’s just really a lack of knowledge. I don’t know who has dropped the ball on it, but since District 5 has been redrawn, [parents] are really in the dark. ‘I didn’t even know this is District 5.’
Municipal schools: The handful of parents I’ve talked to are willing to take a chance on going to these muni [municipal] schools rather than to send their kids to the nearest Shelby County [Schools] school, it’s more or less a preference. That preference has been historically noted for decades.
Lack of trust: They do support public education but they want to make sure the dollars are going to the exact allocation areas the school system says they’re going to. We just had a recent decision to fund pre-K, but they are not going to trust Shelby County Schools with that money. They are going to trust it to a non-profit organization to run that situation. I think the [Shelby County] commissioners have a real handle on understanding what the people want.
Extracurriculars: A lot of other parents were telling me they were concerned that after kids get out of school they have nothing to do. There is no bus service and they’re getting in trouble in their neighborhood because they have absolutely nothing to do. So if you don’t have a car, you’re basically on a deserted island with no way out.
Uninformed: A lot of parents didn’t know that a lot of children in Memphis City Schools were not on the grade-level they were supposed to be on. That was kind of shocking to them. They wanted a candidate that was going to speak up for them. They wanted somebody who would let them know what was going on with the school systems before it got too late. A lot of voters I talked to said nobody has been over here. We get robocall after robocall, but nobody has knocked on our door.
New boundaries: There’s been so much confusion. Some parents knew exactly where their kids were going, and that Woodstock was going to be a high school. Some didn’t. They said [the district] is focused on Raleigh and Frayser, but nobody focuses on Northhaven, Lucy or Woodstock.
High interest: When I go knock on doors, about 90 percent of the people have been very receptive. Only a handful say I’m not interested, I don’t have a child in school, or I don’t vote at all. About 90 percent are generally concerned about the education of our children.
Municipal districts: Several of them did say that they were told that if they provided transportation they could remain at Millington and that they would be sending their child to Millington.
Safety: We had some that were concerned about the safety in Frayser and legacy Memphis schools: we heard it was bad, they fight all the time. I did tell them that Frayser High was a charter school and actually gave them the director’s name and number, and told them to call him: he’ll tell you what’s going on, he’ll tell you who he is and what he wants to do. I told them this is a new school, a new director and we just have to hold them accountable. The community has to hold them accountable for what they said they were going to do with our children. That’s everywhere, whether it’s private, ASD, whatever.
All children: I’m from Millington, grew up there and moved to Frayser. I’ve advocated for kids in Millington not just in Frayser. I’ve helped parents in the ASD, even a private school. At the end of the day I don’t care what school they go to. We have to make sure all children receive a quality education, get a good job, go to college, so we don’t have to worry about them stealing because they’re making their own money.
Income differences: In the higher income areas they didn’t really have a lot of issues. It was more, hey how you doing? Okay thank you. You have a good day. Coming closer to Northaven, some parts of Millington, I talked to a couple of people who had mixed children that got teased from time to time. But most parents in the inner city part, they felt like nobody really listened to them, that they didn’t have a voice, people were making a decision for their kids and nobody said anything to them. I stay in Frayser, and that is something that I can relate to. Shelby County Schools never informed me that a charter school was taking over Frayser High School. The ASD informed me, but I feel like I’m part of the Shelby County district. They said letters were sent out but I never received a letter.
Transportation: Because these areas are pretty far out, that requires more busing, more drivers. We want to make sure that they’re provided support to get to school so parents don’t have to spend extra time delaying them from work, transporting their kids. We may need to provide additional funding to support a bus route in these areas. Some of the schools changed grade levels, which caused issues where parents may have two or three kids and they’re having to transport them to different schools because old routes aren’t provided anymore. If you look at the family demographics, these are multifamily homes, each family has between two to three different kids so of course they’re going to be in different grade levels.
Start Times: Parents are concerned with school start-times. I think we need to make a judgement based upon a collective response from the parents to see if we are starting the schools at the appropriate times to make it easier for families.
School focus: Parents are focused on how the school is going to function, how they’re going to educate the students. They’re focused on pre-K programs that are preparing their children for the next level. So that’s what’s important to them, having good teachers, good administrators, good support staff who are trained, and geared towards helping the kids with reading programs and things like that.
Millington or Lucy Elementary: Even though the schools have separated and created their own municipality, the areas are still entwined with each other. Everybody pretty much knows each other. The churches are very close together. Because we’ve never been combined with Memphis. We’ve always been pretty separate. Our Millington Fire Department, even the Chick fil A are very influential in Millington and Lucy: they both have supported the schools. The parents that I’ve talked to have not been all pro-Millington or pro-Lucy. It’s a bit of a split. They’re taking their kids to Millington because of the drive or some parents that attended Lucy themselves are going to keep taking their kids to Lucy.
Technology: [Legacy] Shelby County has always been geared towards technology with iPads and laptops and stuff like that, so we’re going to have to incorporate that into our unified school district, and make sure those programs keep the attention spans of our children.
Chalkbeat used school-level 2012-13 TCAP data from legacy Shelby County Schools to create a picture of schools in unincorporated Shelby County and each of the municipal districts.