Two years ago, Jim Lord camped outside in a tent for five days in January to secure a coveted spot for his son at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, one of the most popular public schools in Memphis.
It worked. Lord was the first person in line when Shelby County Schools opened its central office doors and began accepting applications for optional schools for the following year.
But the longstanding first-come, first-serve process gnawed at Lord and, even today, he knows that other deserving families were left out in the cold if they didn’t have the time and resources to do what he did.
“I hated it,” he said of the annual mass campout, which has come to be known as “tent city.”
Now the days of tent city are over, say district leaders.
In January, Shelby County Schools will move the entire application process online, and it’s exploring other changes too. Program director Linda Sklar says moving completely online offers a “unique opportunity to revisit our optional school application process for new students in a way that increases access and equity for all of our families.”
The district has 49 optional programs that provide specialty studies in areas such as science, computer technology, aviation and the performing arts. In recent years, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and Idlewild Elementary have been the optional schools of choice for Memphis families seeking a high-achievement public education. Not all applicants get into those two. But at the other schools, parents usually get their first choice if their student meets academic requirements, according to Sklar.
The former Memphis City Schools began developing optional schools in the 1970s as magnet programs to compete with private schools for high-achieving students.
Over the years, it’s tweaked the application process. Last January, the district revised its first-come, first-serve approach so that only 80 percent of applicants were chosen that way, and the remaining 20 percent were drawn from a lottery. It’s also been allowing students who are currently enrolled in the district to apply online.
District leaders unveiled two other options on Tuesday night during the first of several meetings to seek public input. In addition to the 80-20 option, they are considering 1) placing all applicants into a lottery, or 2) shifting the online process so that it’s all first-come, first-serve.
If the latter, parents worry that the inequities of “tent city” will simply migrate online. Memphis has a high percentage of single-parent families living in poverty, and digital access is an issue.
Whatever happens, Memphians are in agreement that the system that inspired tents to pop up on the grounds of the district’s headquarters is unacceptable.
“Camping out is unfair on so many levels to people,” said Susan Todd, a parent who hopes her fifth-grader can attend Maxine Smith next year. “There’s no way it can be equal if you work at Kroger because you do not have the … availability.”
Tosha Downey, who graduated from Memphis City Schools, said standing in line for a better school was not an option when she was growing up in a poor family, especially if she couldn’t walk to school.
“The first who come are the wealthiest, the most privileged, the ones with flexible schedules who can come and take off work, who can have their friends and their cousins and their nannies show up … and poor families cannot do that, no matter how brilliant their children are. They just cannot do it,” said Downey, who now works as advocacy director of the Memphis Education Fund, which works in behalf of the city’s lowest-performing schools.
Venita Doggett, a parent and former district employee, said her mother camped out years ago for an optional school slot. She’s ready for tent city to go.
“I don’t understand why we’re doing something so archaic. If you open up a window for applications on Monday at 8 o’clock, that only benefits people that work in an office. That does not benefit anyone else,” she said.
Most people who weighed in on Tuesday said the lottery appears to be the fairest option going forward. But others, like Lord, favored some kind of hybrid process.
“It’s a combination of ability and motivation,” he said. “Some people may be really motivated to get in line but can’t because they’re at work. Going online definitely takes a lot of those access issues away.”
Ultimately, Lord said, there’s a fourth option that would render the whole conversation moot.
“The real solution,” he said, “is to have more of those schools.”
A second public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18, and an online survey is also planned.