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Samantha Crawford, an 18-year-old high-school senior, doesn’t like to use the word “ghetto” to describe her neighborhood in the center of Memphis, Tennessee, but she can’t think of a better one. In Binghampton, people drink and hang out. They are transient, moving from apartment to apartment and job to job. Many don’t work at all. Samantha speculates that few have finished college, or even high school.

In the past two years, though, Samantha has begun to look at her neighborhood as an inspiration. “It’s not about where I stay, or wherever I come from, but what I’m going to make of it,” she says.

Samantha once earned only Bs and Cs. Now, she makes straight As. She had dreamed of college, but wasn’t sure how she’d get there. Now, she’s feeling overwhelmed by the choices available to her. In the past few months, she received five college acceptance letters, along with a scholarship to a local community college.

She attributes her success to her family, by which she means her mom, but also her teachers and principal at Manassas High School, located across town in North Memphis. “If you fail at Manassas…” she says, before stopping herself. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”

The reforms that drove her school’s success are now up in the air, however. A contentious merger plan with the suburban school district surrounding Memphis has roiled the city, jeopardizing an effort to overhaul the struggling district and setting up a potential clash between the two leading approaches to school reform.

Manassas, an all-black, nearly all-poor school, has a lot going for it: a new building, a new set of intensely dedicated teachers who willingly work on Saturdays, and the attention — and money — of national foundations and advocacy groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The principal, James Griffin, is a soft-spoken former football player who wears rectangular glasses and immaculate suits and spends his days in classrooms, monitoring and helping teachers. He makes personal calls to students who fall behind.

The school could be a poster child for the “no-excuses” education reform movement, which argues that schools and teachers should be able to help all students succeed, regardless of the challenges they face outside of school — including broken families, violence and poverty. Last year, 111 of 131 seniors who applied to college were accepted. (The graduating class was 150.) The previous year, only 25 graduating seniors had been accepted.

Manassas is among a handful of schools in Memphis that have successfully piloted reforms based on the no-excuses ideas that have also driven the charter-school movement. Administrators expect the success to spread this year, following a full slate of changes, including a new intensive teacher-evaluation system with multiple classroom observations per year that was rolled out in the fall. Indispensable to the project has been a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supplemented by funding from local donors. The money has paid for consultants who helped hire new mission-driven principals and teachers like Griffin, and new technology, including video cameras to record teachers in the classroom. It will eventually fund bonus pay for teachers who raise student achievement.

But last winter, the Memphis school board essentially gave up, endangering the reform work when they voted to dissolve the school district into the whiter, wealthier suburban district that rings the city. The merger means the city school board will have to disband and be replaced by a joint city-suburban board. The administrators who initiated the reform effort may be removed.

City voters upheld the move, which was partly about money. The suburban county that encompasses Memphis has always helped fund education within the city. Although the suburbs run their own schools, they are not completely autonomous. A state law passed in 1982 banned them from breaking away into an independent school district — something many suburban areas were interested in doing in the aftermath of school desegregation, when white families fleeing from cities and towns filled up suburban neighborhoods.

Until now, this meant that Memphis could benefit from suburban funding while maintaining its own board and making its own decisions about how the money would be spent. But when Republicans took over the state assembly in 2010, it seemed likely they would repeal the 1982 law, making it possible for the suburbs to finally create their own district and withdraw their fiscal support. The Memphis school board acted before they had a chance to do so: By choosing to dissolve into the wealthier surrounding district, the board essentially decided to give up the school district’s autonomy in order to keep the funds rolling in.

Memphis school board members and administrators cite another reason for the merger, however. For the district to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, school officials say they need to share not just funding with middle-class schools, but also, if possible, students, teachers, and the involved parents who help drive suburban success. “We know that if there’s diversity, and it’s socioeconomic diversity, those students tend to perform better. It’s less homogenous,” says Tomeka Hart, a school board member and president of the Memphis Urban League.

Consolidating with the county schools is not just about protecting funding. It’s a last-ditch effort to revive the goals of the school desegregation movement from a half-century ago. For two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Memphis schools remained starkly segregated. In 1973, a federal court ordered Memphis to integrate its schools using busing, but the program met with massive resistance from whites. Many fled for the suburbs or private schools. “Clearly people feel like this is a continuation of something,” says Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who has studied school desegregation in Memphis. “In many ways it is, from an ideas standpoint.”

Now, the two reform movements — one that argues schools should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve on their own, and another that argues schools are constrained by conditions beyond their control like poverty and segregation — are on a collision course in Memphis. The merger, which will be completed by next year, has led some to worry that Gates could pull its funds and the reforms could come to a halt, while suburban residents have protested against joining their school district with the high-minority, high-poverty Memphis schools. Although Memphis leaders have said a revival of busing for either white or black students is highly unlikely, fears among parents persist. Some towns in the suburbs are now talking of setting up their own separate districts. Both opponents and advocates have warned that many white families could move out of the county altogether.

Despite the obstacles, school leaders are hoping the merger could present a third way to the warring sides in the larger debate about how to reform education. The Memphis school superintendent, Kriner Cash, who has led the teacher-focused reform effort, is excited about the city-county merger — even though it could mean he loses his job.

“This is controversial,” he says, acknowledging that his views on the merger may clash with the no-excuses doctrine that has defined his tenure in the district. “The gap closes when folks go to school together, when they play together, when they’re in afterschool programs together, and when they live in the same communities together,” he says. “It’s a both-and. It’s not an either-or. That is the vision of this new district for me.”

*     *     *

Memphis is a place of contrasts. It’s the poorest large metropolitan area in America, according to the latest census data. Inside the city limits, rundown houses and liquor stores barricaded behind iron bars make the poverty palpable. The city spans a lot of land, and in many places it is sparsely populated, with empty lots stretching across multiple acres.

Education researchers have long known that poverty is linked to low student achievement, and Memphis hasn’t been an exception. The city schools are the worst in Tennessee, which in turn ranks near the bottom on national achievement tests.

Beyond the city limits, however, new suburban malls bustle with activity. Housing along the inner ring is showing its age, but large houses with sweeping lawns have gone up on the outskirts. Shelby County encompasses the city, but has its own semi-independent school district covering the suburban areas. (Some tax funding is shared, but the school districts are run separately.) It is one of the wealthiest districts in the state. The percentage of students who pass state exams in the suburbs is more than double the percentage in the city.

The city’s deep divides are partly a function of a previous effort to unite it 40 years ago. In 1968, the city’s schools were two-thirds white and a third black. Just five years later, once the busing initiative began, the ratio flipped: Two-thirds of students were black, and a third were white.

In the first year of busing, the old Manassas High School was refitted with air conditioning and enrolled some white students, but integration didn’t last long. When Samantha Crawford’s mother, Quintonia, attended Manassas in the mid-1980s, only two white students were enrolled, and both lived in the neighborhood. It was a good school then — discipline was strict, she says — but it’s even better now.

“When Mr. Griffin got there, he promoted college a lot more than it had been promoted,” says Crawford, who didn’t go to college herself and who now works as a hotel banquet server. “And they have some great teachers.”

The school, now in a brand-new building paid for in part by suburban tax dollars, stands on a desolate stretch of road in northern Memphis. Nearby, an abandoned chimney reaching out of an empty field is all that remains of an old Firestone factory. The only other signs of life are a Baptist church and a liquor store. The 550 students at Manassas don’t fill the cavernous space, which has room for twice as many. Even during class changes, the school has a hushed, empty feel to it.

Manassas was built on what used to be housing projects, meaning a major source of students no longer exists. But the small size allows for Griffin, the principal, to pay close attention to the remaining students. After calling a child who has fallen behind, Griffin often brings in the family to see him in person. He once traveled to the workplace of a mother who couldn’t make it to the school.

Griffin — trained by one of the private groups that have flocked to the city in the last three years to help improve its struggling schools — has been on the job a year and a half. Many of the teachers are also new after Griffin replaced nearly half the staff. Classes of 15 students spread out in classrooms big enough for 40, with banks of computers lining the walls. Empty rooms have been converted into a student “dorm room,” where seniors research colleges, a “data lounge,” for the teachers to study student progress on weekly tests, and a museum to commemorate Manassas High’s century-long legacy as an all-black school. “Find a way, or make a way” is Griffin’s slogan.

Griffin’s belief that teachers alone can raise the achievement and aspirations of children who live in poverty is based on experience. He was born when his mother was in eighth grade and lived with his grandparents after they kicked his mother out of the house. They were solidly working-class; his grandmother was a school custodian and his grandfather a factory worker. They spoiled him, but weekends at the house often got out of hand. He remembers his grandmother playing dice with the neighbors, and lots of alcohol. On one occasion, his mother stopped by to see him and found him drunk. He was four.

After a court battle, his mother gained custody and took him in, but she also struggled to provide a good home. She already had another baby, and soon had three more. She was illiterate, so Griffin read the mail out loud to her every afternoon. The family lived on $260 a month, and often slept on relatives’ couches. They also spent time in a homeless shelter. On at least one night, they slept on the street. By the time he reached 12th grade, Griffin had attended 11 different schools. He was often in trouble, and barely passing his classes.

In his last year, one of his teachers pushed him to try for college. He did extra-credit assignments to bring up his grades, and took the ACT six times before he scored high enough to be eligible for admission. The University of Tennessee-Martin accepted him on a football scholarship. From there, he eventually earned his master’s degree and became a teacher. He’s now working on a doctorate.

Griffin says his childhood mirrors that of many of his students at Manassas, where 95 percent of students are poor and 99 percent are minorities. In Memphis as a whole, 87 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals. Two-thirds come from single-parent families. Nearly a third of students change schools each year. Griffin often uses his life story to remind his teachers and students that people who believe poverty is an excuse for failure are wrong.

“They say you’ve got to have a middle-class parent to make sure a child is successful, but what about me? Was I an anomaly?” he says. “I had teachers that kept me in the game and got me to stay in school, and that’s what it takes.”

Quincy Hassell lives in a working-class black neighborhood in East Memphis and moved around to various schools within Memphis before ending up at Manassas this year. Already he has internalized Griffin’s message. Quincy went from a 1.8 grade-point average last year to a 3.5 this year. He’s aiming for a 3.8, and out of the 10 colleges he applied to, five have already accepted him. “At this school, they woke me up,” Quincy says. “Do you want to be on the corner begging for money, or do you want to do something with yourself?”

Griffin’s conviction that all children can succeed with enough teacher attention and skill is also grounded in necessity. After busing failed in Memphis — and many cities like it — teachers and principals in urban schools were left to make the best of very difficult student populations. Although research has shown that the more concentrated the poverty in a school, the worse children perform, the latest generation of education reformers has seized on evidence that teachers are the single greatest factor affecting a child’s learning in school.

Memphis appears to be further proof that segregated urban schools can improve despite the odds. In 2011, the school district posted the biggest test-score gains in the state.

Josh Edelman, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the progress on adopting reforms in Memphis is “exciting.” Although the merger vote prompted some Memphis leaders to worry that Gates would pull its funds, the foundation has said it will stay committed to the city, “as long as effective teaching and improved outcomes for all students remains a top priority.” Edelman says he’s hoping the merger of the two districts will allow the teacher-focused work to expand to a larger number of students.

The suburban district is pursuing its own programs to improve teaching. The merger has pitted the two bureaucracies against each other, however, and administrators in both systems have become defensive about their reform strategies, and dismissive of the other side’s efforts.

“I think the achievement gap takes a lot of different approaches to close. It starts with great teachers and great leadership,” Edelman says. “And I do think kids learn a lot from each other.”

Griffin and his supervisors in the Memphis district offices argue that this mixing of students is what is missing in their efforts. What if the barriers between inner-city and suburban schools were broken down, so students could learn from one other? And what if then, Manassas could combine its intensive academics with another sort of education, in which students pick up the social and cultural tools they will need to negotiate the outside world they’ll someday encounter? What if the struggling schools in Memphis didn’t have to turn themselves around alone?

“It’s not that children are smarter” in the suburbs, says Cash, who studied integration as a master’s student at Stanford University and led the schools in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., for nine years. “They’ve had more exposure to the things that equate to school-smart … concepts, words and experiences that equate to book-knowledge, and to test-knowledge.”

Integrating schools isn’t enough to completely close the achievement gap, but research has also found that mixing students by race and class can significantly improve their outcomes. “We ought to have the best ingredients for our students,” Griffin says. “That mixing would enhance their world.”

After taking over at Manassas last year, Griffin tried to add in that missing element to his school. Most of his students have never left the city limits, and many have never left their immediate neighborhood, he says. Few have had exposure to adults with white-collar jobs besides their teachers. Even if his students do well in high school, it’s unclear they’ll make it through college, where they will have to fend for themselves in a more diverse environment. Nationally, only 40 percent of black college students graduate from college, compared to 60 percent of whites. Minority graduation rates are the worst at public universities and community colleges — the types of schools where most Manassas students go.

Griffin talked to a private school in the suburbs about creating an exchange, so the students could meet occasionally to talk about where they were from and learn from one another. The planning was going well, until, Griffin says, the private-school administrators realized his vision included not just trips to the suburbs for his students, but trips to Manassas for the white students. The private school backed out.

The Memphis merger could present a new opportunity to continue the reforms introduced by Cash, while also allowing city schools and their more affluent neighbors to exchange resources, teachers and perhaps, someday, students. Irving Hamer, a deputy superintendent in Memphis, says that the “unspoken intent” is to “attempt to do some reconciliation between race and class here.”

When the district expands to encompass the entire county, students both inside the city limits and out in the suburbs will ostensibly have wider choices about where to go to school, which could provide opportunities for voluntary student mixing. For years, the city has been able to retain its small proportion of white students largely through a set of selective magnet schools that are attractive to middle-class families. In a joint suburban-city district, poor students from the inner city might also have the option of choosing a suburban school instead of the one in their neighborhood. (Manassas, for example, has attracted students from all over the city district because of its improving reputation.)

But Hamer says a new round of busing is a very unlikely outcome of the merger. “We’ve had our busing episodes, and we’re not reinventing those,” he says. “It’s not coming back.” Instead, he predicts the merger could lead suburban areas to separate from the consolidated district and white families to move away.

Last November, more than 100 residents of Bartlett, a small city situated just over the county line from Memphis, gathered for a town meeting in a converted church. Nearly all were white, although the number of black residents in Bartlett has increased to 16 percent in recent years. (The racial make-up of the suburbs has changed significantly in the past decade as many black middle-class residents of Memphis have moved in, often in search of better schools.) After a long prayer by a local pastor, the mayor, Keith McDonald, told the crowd that more than 1,000 students had left the local schools since the Memphis school board voted to dissolve itself the previous year.

“The people in Memphis don’t get it,” he said. “If these people leave, the burden goes up on all of us.”

Bartlett, along with two other towns in Shelby County, is now considering whether to create a separate school district — under the same state law that prompted the merger — before the two districts join next year. A consultant released a report this January suggesting a new district wouldn’t put too great a burden on the towns’ taxpayers. It is unclear if they will have to buy the school buildings from the county, however, which could be costly. And the state law is likely to face challenges in court by advocates of the consolidation.

Many residents believe the cost will be worth it. “I would rather the decisions about our schools be made by my neighbors, rather than an entire metro area that maybe doesn’t have the best interest of my kids at heart,” said Chris Huffstetler, 43, a 14-year Bartlett resident and father of three, at the town meeting. “I trust you guys. I trust my neighbors.” The audience broke into applause.

Later, his wife, Lisa Huffstetler, 46, explained that while she understood that difficult home lives of students are a challenge for Memphis, the district has a history of corruption and misspending money. “We’ve watched them make ridiculous decisions, one after the other,” she says. “We’re terrified for the education of our kids.”

Samantha Crawford, who wants to be a criminal profiler, a career she learned about on TV, hopes the suburban towns won’t secede. She has studied the merger, and thinks it could lift Memphis schools to new heights. “Some people don’t know this, but schools in Cordova and Germantown, they challenge them harder than they challenge us,” she says, referring to the suburbs. “If we all get together and become as one, we’ll get a better education.”

The merger seems to have inspired school reformers in Memphis to broaden their hopes about what’s possible in school reform, but Manassas’s gleaming but half-empty halls may never be filled with a blend of middle-class and lower-income students. “If we’re going to get the kind of pop where the Memphis city schools aren’t the bottom percent of schools in the state, which … they will always be because of the poverty,” says Cash, “then what you have to do is you have to get kids into the same classes.” Without that mix, some now say, the achievement gap may shrink, but it won’t close completely.

This story appeared on website of The Atlantic on February 13, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction of this story is not allowed.

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