We’re the first to admit when we make a mistake. So here it is: we were wrong about Memphis City Schools Interim Superintendent Dan Ward.

We had misgivings that he would just be a caretaker during a transition period when Memphis City Schools should be engaged in a period of self-reflection, self-examination, analysis and priority-setting. It’s our view that these transition times aren’t just “down time” for districts, but the best time to develop a strong plan for transitioning from one superintendent to another and to making sure there is no lost momentum for school reform.

But, we were wrong about Mr. Ward, because soon he will apparently unveil a plan to close 99 city schools.


Or at least that’s the only conclusion we could reach based on the shut-down of Yo! Academy with a speed unseen in the city district in decades. We’re just taking Mr. Ward at his word.

In explaining his recommendation to shut down the charter school, Mr. Ward concluded that to keep Yo! Academy open would be to condemn students to attending a school that is not working, according to The Commercial Appeal’s fine education reporter, Dakarai Aarons.

In light of this unequivocal operating philosophy, we’re looking to see some dramatic action in the coming months as he delivers what he promised – making sure that students aren’t attending schools that aren’t working.

Free The Memphis 99

Last time we checked, that would be 99 of the schools in his district.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that’s the number as a result of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the educational bureaucrats at Memphis City Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education. Through their breathless news releases about the increasing numbers of schools in good standing, they mislead the public at best and lie by omission at worst.

At the time that these releases are issued, both state and local education officials know the truth – the reason the numbers of schools in good standing are going up is because the state has lowered standards for proficiency and that the city is masterfully executing the minutiae of No Child Left Behind. More than anything, both Tennessee Department of Education and Memphis City Schools know – even in the midst of their celebrations about schools in “good standing” – that none of this means that our students are learning more or better.

Lowering Standards To Raise Success

After all, to be judged as proficient in reading in Tennessee classrooms, an eighth grader has to answer only 40 percent of the questions right. In 2004, it was 43 percent, and in 2003, it was 51 percent. Last time, we got one of our children’s report cards, that test score was a solid “F” no matter who calculated it.

Supt. Carol Johnson was masterful in her use of safe harbors, a strategy made possible under No Child Left Behind and she was only taking advantage of the provisions of the sweeping federal law. Admitting on the front end that we are seriously oversimplifying the definition of safe harbor, in essence, it gives districts a way to include schools that really aren’t making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) – but are making strides – into the list of “good standing” schools.

There are 41 of these safe harbor schools at Memphis City Schools. Or put another way, of those 128 schools touted in news release for setting a new record in “schools in good standing,” 41 of them actually are not making AYP.

Let’s Be Truthful

In other words, when you add the 17 schools that are targeted for not making AYP this year to the 41 schools in the “high priority” category and then add the 41 safe harbor schools, the number of Memphis City Schools that aren’t meeting the No Child Left Behind standard is 99 out of a total of 186 schools, or 53 percent of the schools.

While there is much to commend about Memphis City Schools these days – and for the record, we have done so – we need to be honest about the facts and what they mean. Rather than pacify the public with public relations statements, Memphis City Schools needs to tell it like it is – a time of crisis that requires every one of us to work to improve our schools and to support the kinds of programs that can make a difference.

We do nothing to address the scope of the problem by soft peddling the consequences and the reality.

Getting The Boot

Which brings us back to Yo! Academy.

It was booted out of the district after one year on the “high priority” list of schools (Tennessee is the only state where the local school board can close charter schools). Meanwhile, the infamous 17 schools have been on the list for six years, and most of the other 82 who aren’t making AYP have been on the list for multiple years.

So, what was the real motivation for the blinding speed shown in closing Yo! Academy? It seems clearer and clearer that it was an act of political theater, designed to show that the Memphis City Schools’ administration and board of commissioners won’t countenance poor performance in its schools.

The Subtext

The fact that Yo! Academy was a charter school – always a preferred target for the teachers’ union and traditionally-minded administrators – made the action ever more sweeter. But most of all, it gave the board the chance to simulate leadership without really showing the real thing. After all, Yo! Academy was one of the smallest student bodies in Memphis, with just over 100 students.

And the fact is that the board has looked the other way year after year as traditional public schools affecting the lives of tens of thousands of students fail to meet standards even as the standards themselves were being reduced.

Quickly becoming the poster child for cynical political symbolism, Yo! Academy isn’t the real problem. More to the point, it’s the problem of style over substance by the people we entrust to lead Memphis City Schools. It is the willingness to engage in the sacrifice of a small number of students to give the appearance of displaying the bold leadership needed to turn the district around.

What About The Others?

Meanwhile, as the Five-Year Comprehensive Plan for Memphis City Schools shows, a multitude of schools continue to remain open with dismal physical space, without the capacity to adapt to the digital opportunities for education and without even a science laboratory, as in the case of Trezevant High Schools.

One underlying reason for the closing of Yo! Academy was to deliver this subliminal message: even charter school can’t succeed, so we’re really not doing all that bad at Memphis City Schools.

The difference is that the charter schools never tried to hide the facts from the public, and in fact, each year, University of Memphis’ highly regarded Center for Research in Education Policy (CREP) conducted an exhaustive study of the charter schools, spelling out the progress and the problems of the individual schools. Yo! Academy had been highlighted in the latest reports.

We’re Waiting

Memphis City Schools should be as forthright with the facts about each of its schools. If it was, we’d be focused now on the futures of 99 schools right now instead of acting like the problem rests with 17 schools that can’t seem to get their acts together.

If the board will hire CREP or Harvard University or someone with national credentials to do the same kind of analysis of its schools, we’ll be the first to lead the applause. Until then, we are left with the manufactured spectacle of the closing of Yo! Academy.

Now the ball is in Mr. Ward’s court, and if he’s true to his word, the closing of this school was just the beginning.