about a year ago, the MakeShift revolution was born of equal parts anxiety and creativity. anxiety and creativity are a likely pairing in most cases of forward progress, no matter how big or small. anxiety about the way things are leads to the creative resolve to make things new.
but on the subject of anxiety, perfect madness author judith warner suggests that many mothers are unwilling to be honest with ourselves and others about the sources of this natural maternal emotion:
“basically, it is acceptable to air all your dirty laundry about yourself, your husband, or your children but it is not acceptable to look beyond your family to suggest that there is something wrong with the world. it is not permissible to talk about policy, or economics, or culture… and this is because, i think, policy, economics, and culture are perceived as being things that we have no control over…. and so we fixate on those things we feel we can control — how our child holds a pencil, whether or not she eats gluten — rather than worry about what we can’t control: our economic futures, kids’ education, health care costs, whether or not we’ll ever be able to afford to retire….
the perversity in all this, of course, is that what we’re trying to control is precisely what one cannot control; you can’t shape and perfect human beings, pre-program and prepare them along the way. but you can — ostensibly — exert some control over what kind of society you live in…. you ostensibly have the power, en masse, to set the national agenda” (209).
i am often guilty of shying away from “setting the national agenda” in favor of setting our family agenda. but today’s post is a venture into a space where the personal and political are intertwined: the issue of educating the children of memphis and shelby county. below is an interview with gretchen stroud, a representative of friends united for school equality (FUSE). FUSE is a group of parents and grassroots activists in favor of the proposed merger of local city and county school systems. read below for a beautiful example of how the collective forces of parental anxiety and creativity are moving beyond the home and into the broken world.
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mary allison: please introduce yourself and let readers know why are you in favor of the consolidation of shelby county and memphis city schools.
gretchen: I am the parent of an Memphis City Schools (MCS) student in first grade. We have had a wonderful experience with MCS so far and are very happy with his school. However, I support consolidation for a few key reasons:
- If Shelby County Schools (SCS) were to obtain the special school district status (with taxing authority) pursued by its school board president David Pickler, this would cut funding for MCS and do away with the equitable per student funding that currently comes from Shelby County. In this scenario, Memphis would be responsible for educating approximately 70% of the county’s children with only 40% of the tax revenues. Taxes in Memphis would have to rise substantially to make up the difference.
- Although the money issue is concerning, the major reason I support the consolidation is that you cannot have “separate but equal” school systems, by law. We are creating a widening division between those students who come from middle and upper class families and those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. This is immoral, unethical and will ultimately create great harm to Memphis and all the surrounding towns and cities who depend on Memphis as the anchor for our mid-south cultural and economic sustainability. Every single child has the potential to learn, and I can tell you from watching the children in my son’s school that every one of them wants to learn. It is up to the adults to figure out how to do that fairly and equally for all.
mary allison: what is FUSE?
gretchen: FUSE stands for Friends United for School Equality. We are a group of Shelby County residents (which means, of course, those living in Memphis and in the suburbs – we are ALL Shelby County) who believe that for our county to remain viable and competitive in the 21st century we must work together as one to provide quality education to ALL of the children in Shelby County.
mary allison: how did FUSE start? please describe how the idea emerged and how so many mid-south parents became organized and mobilized so quickly under the umbrella of FUSE:
gretchen: Well, it started as a group of MCS Optional School parents who came together on Facebook after Mr. Pickler started trying to scare people by threatening the Optional program. I think that he was hoping that our fear of losing this program would drive us to vote against the merger. However, he definitely underestimated us. We came together to start talking about consolidation and quickly realized that this isn’t just about our kids, it is about ALL of the kids in Shelby County. Every single one of them deserves a great education – not just the ones we are raising. And we talked about how we wanted to reach out to other parents from the county schools because we felt that there were more people like us out there who are committed to the concept that you cannot raise your children in a bubble of privilege. What is good for my child should be good for ALL children, and if it isn’t good for all children then it really isn’t good for my own child in the long run either. I think we have grown so quickly because our group is devoted to fostering kind, honest, and real conversation among parents and other “regular people.”
mary allison: what are some of the reasons that fuel opposition to school consolidation, and what do you to say to parents who are not in favor of merging?
gretchen: Fear and lack of truth. Honestly, people think that MCS are pits of danger and despair. I partly blame the media because they will run a hundred stories about teen pregnancy, a fight at a school, and an underperforming principal. But, I didn’t see a single mid-south news organization cover the news this summer when Memphis was named one of the 21 “overachieving” urban school districts based on a large study of urban school districts in the US. Not just one of the 21, but one of the top five! That is great news for Memphis, and NO ONE reported it. The report can be found in this Education Week article.
We had a group of Germantown moms send us a list of questions that they honestly wanted to ask (but were a little embarrassed and afraid to, I think). They wanted to know if our elementary kids in MCS have art or music or libraries. I was blown away! But, the sad fact is that the myths and stereotypes people have been hearing about MCS for years are in many cases their only exposure to the city school system. We were able to answer those questions in a non-threatening manner that encouraged further dialog. And, in case your readers are wondering, yes, MCS elementary students have art, Orff music, P.E., and library every week. And most elementary schools also offer foreign languages starting in first grade. In addition, the gifted program in MCS begins in kindergarten. They start instruments in fourth grade too.
What I say to parents who oppose the merger is, come and see what MCS is really about. Our kids are great kids who want to learn, just like yours do. We have wonderful, hard-working teachers, just like you do. Great things happen in Memphis City Schools every single day. Beyond that, I would say consolidation is the RIGHT thing to do. Shelby County cannot survive with this crazy us vs. them mentality. And, you aren’t creating the kind of place where your children will want to live when they grow up if the city that is the keystone of this entire mid-south area is left to decay and decline because we cannot come together as one community.
mary allison: what actions do members of FUSE take to affect change?
gretchen: We have some really great members! We write letters to the newspapers, and we are working with Stand for Children to host educational events for the community about the pros and cons of consolidation (although I should note that FUSE supports the consolidation and Stand is non-partisan on this issue). We had a very active email campaign to city council last week ahead of their vote. We contact our state legislature and the governor to try to give Memphis a voice in this process. We educate others about what consolidation could look like. We reach out to parents across the county to start the conversation now about what we parents want a unified school district to offer. Do we want smaller sub-districts? Do we want magnet schools? Do we want smaller class sizes? Do we want every child to get foreign language instruction starting in first grade? What do we think our children need to be competitive in the 21st century? I’m not saying that I have a position on all of these issues, but so far no one is asking parents what WE want in a new, unified district. And they should be asking.
mary allison: could you describe in layman’s terms the timeline and political process that is currently structuring the consolidation decision?
gretchen: Ha, ha, ha! If I could do that, I’d be rich! As of this moment, the city council has accepted the charter surrender, but Memphians STILL need to vote in the referendum (early voting begins Feb. 16). Shelby County Schools has filed a federal lawsuit against a whole lot of people, including (but not limited to) MCS, Memphis City Council, US Dept of Education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, US Dept of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder, Tennessee Department of Education, Education Commissioner Patrick Smith (and others). And, that is just the beginning.
But, and this is important, it is time NOW for all of us in Shelby County to seriously contemplate whether we want this issue tied up in federal courts for the next five to ten years. Who does that serve? Certainly not the children. It really just serves our fear and our prejudices. And, if we want to come together and try to figure out the best way to educate all of the children in this community in the best way possible, then we need to tell our elected officials that we want to come together and fix this now.
mary allison: how might others who are interested in FUSE become involved in your work?
gretchen: First, let me say that we would love to have anyone join us who is interested. You can find us at www.fuseshelby.org or on Facebook.
[source info for perfect madness is located on the bibliography page, which is listed on the sidebar to your right.]