Southwest Tennessee Community College partnered with Artesian Schools charter network on the operation of a school on its campus.
On the Union Avenue campus of Southwest Tennessee Community College, a yellow school bus pulls up to the outside of Building E around 2:30 p.m. every school day.
Inside the building, 90 ninth-grade students wait in the hallway for their dismissal cue, then leave through the doors marked “Southwest Early College High School.”
The school is new this year, a charter partnership between Southwest Tennessee Community College and Artesian Schools. The charter is under Shelby County Schools.
The school, which will eventually have 400 students, is one of several new initiatives by local colleges to be heavily involved in elementary, middle and high schools in Memphis.
As Shelby County Schools students struggle to leave high school ready for college — just 9.6 percent of SCS seniors last year were considered college-ready by ACT benchmarks — higher education leaders are seeing a need to roll up their sleeves and help. Collaborations between the colleges and the county school system range from dual enrollment offerings and tutoring to full partnership on the operation of schools.
“In the old days you’d say, let pre-k through 12 do their thing, and once they get here, we’ll do our thing,” Christian Brothers University President John Smarrelli said.
That’s no longer the case in Memphis.
“There’s a new sort of culture, a new attitude of the colleges and universities,” Smarrelli said. “We’ve got to start growing our own and we’ve got to start getting involved with growing our own.”
A growing list of partnerships
Of the five major Memphis-based colleges and universities, four have strong partnerships in the operation of schools.
Southwest opened its early college high this year. Christian Brothers already has close relationships with SCS’s Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and Middle College High and will be a partner in Crosstown High, opening this fall. Smarrelli chairs the Crosstown school’s board, and also chairs the board for a new group hoping to turn the closing Jubilee Catholic Schools into charters.
LeMoyne-Owen College hosts Hollis F. Price Middle College High on its South Memphis campus and works closely with its students, who take college courses.
March 9, 2018 – Dr. Kirkland Hamilton leads his ninth-grade U.S. History class during a quiz at Southwest Early College High Friday afternoon. The school is in a partnership between Shelby County Schools and Southwest Tennessee Community College. The school opened this year and has 92 students. (Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal)
The University of Memphis operates Campus School, an SCS school on the university campus that serves many faculty members’ children but also those from the neighborhood. The school operates as a laboratory for college students studying education to do their student teaching
On Wednesday, President David Rudd received blessing from his board to explore the idea of adding a middle school. Rudd said it’s a natural next step, building on the successes of one of the strongest elementary schools in the state.
Rudd said he’s less concerned about creating a pipeline for future University of Memphis students and more concerned with making a contribution to the educational landscape in the city.
“We’re thinking about different ways of partnering to help, to help the city, to help expand these educational opportunities, particularly in our neighborhood district,” Rudd said. “We think that’s important.”
‘What all do you need us to do?’
Following a recent listening tour, Shelby County Schools Chief of School Sharon Griffin said she’s noticing an increased willingness from the community, particularly colleges, to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to improving schools.
“Instead of telling us what they want to do, people are asking us, what all do you need us to do?” Griffin said. “And that’s not a question we’ve heard in the past.”
Griffin said the partnerships are a sign of transparency by SCS that the school district alone can’t improve student outcomes, particularly with the kind of suffocating poverty Memphis students endure.
“The challenges that we face in this city, we can’t fix them by ourselves,” Griffin said. “Our schools are just cosmic pictures of what’s happening in society.”
One of the biggest areas of need colleges have recommitted to, Griffin said, is training teachers to work in SCS schools.
Rhodes College President Marjorie Hass announced during her inaugural address in January an urban education masters program designed as a pipeline to SCS and to increase diversity in teaching.
The University of Memphis recently announced the River City Partnership, a collaboration with SCS for teacher training that focuses on urban education. The university aims to raise $7.5 million, and got a head start with a $1 million donation, announced this week, from trustee David North and his risk management and claims services company, Sedgwick.
The program aims to prepare teachers for the challenge of teaching in an urban classroom and increase the diversity of teachers, especially increasing the number of black male elementary teachers. Twenty SCS elementary math teachers will also have the opportunity to earn masters degrees in mathematics in one year from the university.
“We feel like just people seeing us working together, wholeheartedly as a city, is going to impact in such a positive way,” Griffin said.
‘A natural fit’ for Southwest
As a community college, being involved beyond classes offered to undergraduates and other adults is “what we are supposed to do,” Chris Ezell, the school’s vice president of academic affairs said.
The early college model is a growing trend nationally, with colleges and school districts partnering to offer students the chance to earn up to an associate’s degree before they finish high school.
Ashley Smith, the CEO of Artesian Schools, the charter school group partnering with Southwest, said she’s in contact with the college frequently.
Southwest President Tracy Hall “really supports what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Ezell said the model has been a great fit for Southwest, and mostly revenue neutral. The school is public, and receives state funding, and pays rent on Southwest’s campus.
“This is really kind of a natural fit for Southwest to move toward the early college high school,” Ezell said. “It does give students just another alternative, a way to be in contact with colleges at a very early stage.”
The students in ninth grade take a wellness course at the college, and in 10th grade will take a college speech class. After that, the goal is for them to be able to fully earn an associate’s degree by the end of high school.
“I think we’re a leader, certainly here in Memphis, in this approach,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenPignolet.
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