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Memphis school leaders want to know if ‘million-dollar scholar’ campaigns are hurting more than helping

At some Memphis high schools, assemblies are held to celebrate academic all-stars and the scholarship money they've been awarded.
At some Memphis high schools, assemblies are held to celebrate academic all-stars and the scholarship money they've been awarded.
Micaela Watts

Two elected school leaders in Memphis promised Monday to look into a former high school student’s complaint of being pressured to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships.

Anisah Karim graduated in 2016 from Shelby County Schools and detailed concerns about her high school’s approach to college admissions in an opinion piece published recently by Chalkbeat. She also spoke last month to the school board about her experience, which included being pulled out of class daily to complete applications.

The piece has garnered a large readership and attracted coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

School board chairman Chris Caldwell said Karim’s complaint merits further investigation.

“It’s bad that she had to go through that, so I think it’s incumbent on me to gather all the facts,” Caldwell said. “We want all students to have a great experience in Shelby County Schools. So when that doesn’t happen, we want to see if it’s a bigger problem and go from there.”

Karim, who does not want to identify her alma mater, said she was ill-prepared for college because her school’s counselors pushed for lots of scholarship money instead of quality applications and finding the best fit for her as a student. After graduating, she started at Tennessee State University, but has transferred to the University of Memphis for her sophomore year. Karim also said that, during her senior year in high school, she and other students faced disciplinary actions if they did not turn in applications or other documents to meet the school’s goal, which she saw as arbitrary.

Board members say they want to understand the extent of such practices within Shelby County Schools.

Miska Clay Bibbs said Karim’s concerns will be discussed by the board’s academic committee, which she chairs.

Bibbs said she is aware of high schools pushing for students to apply to 100 colleges to amass scholarship offers, but doesn’t have enough information to say if that’s a good or bad thing. She noted that some application websites can help students apply to up to 50 schools at once for a low price.

She wants to meet with Karim and plans to gather information from school counselors, high school principals and charter leaders to discuss the concerns she’s raised.

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