When people ask me where I’m from, I say Memphis. Being a Memphian has always been my primary identity, before being a Tennessean or a resident of Shelby County. Growing up in Memphis, we’re acutely aware of just how different we are from the rest of the state. We’re the largest city, we prefer blues and R&B to country, and even our accents are different. In Shelby County, the line between city and county is much deeper and more clearly drawn, especially when it comes to our school systems.
Unlike many large cities, Memphis is not governed as a metropolitan area. Memphis and Shelby County each have their own mayors, elected officials, and civic services. Over the years, the way our city and county are set up has had unwitting consequences for our students, who attend very disparate school systems that have unequal access to the economic and social resources of our county. Last year, Memphis City Schools educated more than 103,000 students, the overwhelming majority of whom were economically disadvantaged (87 percent) and minority (85 percent were African American and 6.5 percent were Hispanic). In contrast, Shelby County Schools educated about 47,000 students. Fewer than two out of five of these students were economically disadvantaged and more than half (52 percent) were white. Beyond demographics, Shelby County Schools’ students are much more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in postsecondary education and training programs, which are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for breaking cycles of poverty.
When I was a Memphis City Schools’ student, I was always attuned to a pervading sense of otherness that had its roots in these stark differences. Even though I took advanced coursework at high performing schools, I was still part of a collective group of students that were being left behind by their wealthy and white peers. Year after year, I saw classmates transfer to private schools, public magnet schools, or schools in the county because their parents were afraid that their children couldn’t possibly receive the education they needed to thrive in life. When I was accepted to Harvard along with another classmate, we encountered so many people who couldn’t believe that we were actually from Memphis and went to public schools there. This struggle between Memphis and Shelby County and the concurrent zero sum game mentality that one entity could only be great at the expense of the other defined my schooling experience and extended to every facet of my life as a Memphian. It has left an indelible mark on how I view the ways inequality are built into systems of governance and power. It’s why, after going away to college and beginning my adult life in cities that are 1,000 miles away, I decided to come home to Tennessee and work in education.
Over the last several months, I have eagerly watched talk of consolidating Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools evolve from a far-flung possibility to a reality that will redefine how we serve all of our students in Shelby County by the 2013 school year. I am heartened that, after months of legal interpretations and negotiations, leaders in both systems have touted this as an opportunity to build a world-class educational system for all students, no matter what side of the city-county line they fall on. While the hard work of sorting through best practices and hammering out the logistics of consolidating two very different systems lies ahead, I have faith that the new system will do a better job of providing all our students access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in the global economy. In many ways, the hardest work is already behind us.