Memphis has a growing reputation as a national leader in the education reform movement. It comes in all shapes with virtually every neighborhood impacted in some way.
There are many great stories about the education reform movement in Memphis, and Grizzlies Prep Charter School and Memphis College Prep are two institutions playing a part in the effort.
It’s not a stretch to say Memphis College Prep was at the forefront of the education reform movement in the Bluff City when the school opened its doors in 2010 as one of the community’s early charter schools.
Michael Whaley is the school’s founder and executive director. He believes schools play a vital role in reversing what ails Memphis.
“People say you can’t fix schools until you fix poverty,” he said. “I think it’s the other way around. Great schools and a great system of schools can transform a community and break the chains of poverty.”
Whaley moved to Memphis from Dallas in 2006 as a teacher in the Teach for America program during its first year in the city. There weren’t many charter schools in the city at the time.
The impetus for Memphis College Prep came from Whaley’s two years teaching at Getwell Elementary School and the reality that so many children were entering kindergarten reading below grade level.
“They already started behind and hadn’t been to school yet,” he said. “Absence a major intervention that gap will widen. That was the idea behind creating a great elementary school. It starts with kindergarten working to close that gap and set them up for success as they continue to grow. Our slogan is the path to college begins in kindergarten and our families that have chosen us believe in that.”
Whaley said a stereotype exists that many parents don’t care about their children, but the challenge goes deeper than that misconception.
“It’s not like our families are more committed and involved,” he said. “We had to go out and convince them to choose us over neighborhood schools. What I found in talking to families there is not a single parent that doesn’t want what’s best for their child. The challenge is they don’t know what’s possible because they didn’t have it for themselves. Our vision is to provide something different and start it early on and change the narrative for what’s possible.”
That’s the vision and the challenge presents itself new every year. At the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, 22 percent of the students entered reading at a kindergarten level. Over the course of the year that jumped to 92 percent. And the focus isn’t just on helping the 78 percent not reading on level get there; it’s also on the 22 percent who are on level achieving even higher.
Memphis College Prep opened in 2010 at 278 Greenlaw Ave. in Uptown. It launched with kindergarten and has grown to graduate its first group of fifth graders this year.
“It’s a milestone year for us,” Whaley said. “We have so man of that original class and to see them grow so much, what they can do that they couldn’t do when they first came in. Now they’re consistently outperforming local, state and national benchmarks for fifth graders. Getting accepted to elite private schools. They’re getting in on merit and getting scholarships, which is exactly what we wanted to see happen.”
Whaley said the goal all along has been to see its students eventually go on to attend college. The building is adorned with pennants that represent the alma maters of the school’s teachers, serving as little reminders of the future possibilities.
But before college comes middle school and eventually high school. Memphis College Prep helps its parents understand all the options that are out there, helping develop questions to ask and working with parents on a one-on-one basis.
“Our ultimate vision is college graduation for all of our kids,” Whaley said. “That could look different. It’s not about which college you go to or type of college. It’s about having options. Too many of our kids’ families didn’t have options. Options are good things. We want options in middle school, high school and most importantly when they go to college.”
And as the school has grown to include fifth grade it also needs a larger space. The next phase includes moving into the former Dunn Elementary School on Dunn Avenue in South Memphis, a building the school purchased and has renovated.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Whaley said. “We have a waiting list and that’s awesome but it’s so tight.”
There are 320 students enrolled in the school, an average of about 55 per grade. Whaley said the school’s leadership has never had an ambition for growth.
“We want to focus on doing early elementary really well,” he said. “We know how important teachers are in the classroom.”
The school also knows how important kindergarten is.
“We’re trying to be super laser-focused on our mission and we feel like that is where the biggest impact can be made,” Whaley said. “It isn’t often where the most attention is. People pay more attention to tested grades. Very few folks probably talk about the importance of early on years.
“The traditional thinking is how do we go to high school programs to recruit and develop. We want them to go to kindergarten. How do we show the importance of starting there? It’s not about instant success. It’s about longer-term impact.”
Grizzlies Prep Charter School has about 250 scholars in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The students who began the sixth grade this academic year entered the school reading on a third-grade level. And that was the highest average since the school started in 2012.
The school, located at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Third Street in Downtown Memphis, will look to get an earlier start on getting students caught up when it expands to include the fifth grade in the 2017-2018 school year. For now, the school’s staff works to prepare its students to move on to high school. The school has an academic adviser who works to place students in high schools.
The students apply to independent, charter and optional programs so they have all those options to consider when it’s time. Those options range from Lausanne Collegiate School and Memphis Catholic to Soulsville Charter School and Freedom Prep. The goal is for students to not go back to their zoned public school.
“A lot of reasons parents pick Grizzlies Prep is all the support we have,” said Ashley Edge Adams, development director who started at the school in 2012 as a fellow. “It’s not just for the ones who are behind but we have challenging programs for those at or above grade level.”
The school only enrolls boys, an important distinction in a city where male students often struggle to perform in school.
“Just look at where the city is with how young men are performing,” said Parker Couch, school director, referring to a rate of 99 percent of boys who took the ACT not scoring an 18. “Deeper than that, in 2013 only 13 percent of fourth graders in the city were reading on grade level. The young men of the city need a special place. In terms of what we offer, we have a very special culture and academic identity. The culture, we believe in an environment of high expectation. The expectations society has for young men of color are low.”
The school’s sixth grade is maxed out at 120 students. There are 75 seventh graders and about 50 eighth graders.
“We do back-fill seventh grade if we need to but we don’t take any new eighth graders unless their brother gets in as sixth graders,” Adams said. “We try not to take new eighth graders because of what we provide academically but also culturally. We have a strong culture here.”
There is student loss from time to time, the main reason being transportation. Students come from across the city. The school has a bus that can transport 50 students.
Adams said not many students leave the school because of discipline.
“It is interesting because a lot who come in you see their records and they have history with behavior and here they’re completely fine,” she said. “I think it’s the structure. We can structure our learning culture and building culture around being all boys. There is a lot of friendly competition and learning styles. Our teachers can structure lessons around how boys learn.”
That means teachers don’t typically stand in front of the class and talk for 45 minutes. Instead, they might do group work or even have a student help lead class.
And the classrooms remain calm thanks to what’s called silent participation. Students wiggle fingers at each other to show support. A snap signals approval of an answer. They cross fingers for a bathroom break.
The relationship with the Grizzlies is more than just in name. Any program the NBA franchise provides such as the Grizzlies Foundation’s Grizz Fit and mentorship offerings are available to the students.
When students are deciding to apply for schools the Grizzlies name brand probably doesn’t hurt in that regard. The school is one of only five in the city with the Grizz mentoring program and the only one with Grizz Fit.
It is important to note the school isn’t funded by the team or its players. As a public charter the school does receive public dollars, although it’s not enough to pay for everything that’s offered. That’s where the support of private donors and foundations is so vital.
Learning at Grizzlies Prep goes beyond the classroom. At the end of every school day students participate in an elective program. It includes offerings such as karate, music production, keyboard, drums and Spanish. The electives are taught by part-time professionals. The school partners with the Memphis Music Initiative for its music offerings.
Other electives have included a gardening class and newspaper class. The school is looking for a gardening instructor who will have a new rooftop garden where a learning garden will be installed.
“We’re always open to having new classes,” Adams said. “We can’t have 50 different elective teachers. It’s people coming to us offering. This is just our fourth year so we’re adding as we go.”
That includes extracurricular activities. It started with a school basketball team, but since has added soccer, baseball and swimming.
And the commitment of staff members goes a long way in making these offerings a reality. The swimming program, for example, was started by a teacher who played water polo.
Back in the classroom, Couch points to the culture that creates a learning environment. The use of hand signals to communicate is one way. Another is the boys all coming to class with perfectly tied neckties.
“Then when you get those expectations and have follow through on the staff side it’s amazing,” he said. “When it comes to classrooms they’re sacred spaces. They’re chaos free. When you think of AP classes in high school they look like calm and focused on whatever the content that is presented. There is a lot of structure and high expectations. For the academic identity, it’s around authentic literacy.
“We try to align what makes the Grizzlies special to what makes the school special. What the Grizzlies are known for are fundamentals, effort, grit and grind. If that’s the blueprint of the basketball team, you can see how it bleeds over into our approach.”