Atlanta Forward: Memphis Transforms Schools With $92M Grant

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With a $92 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the city of Memphis changed the course of their school system and their students. Channel 2 Action News anchor Jovita Moore traveled to Memphis to see how we can learn from them to move Atlanta forward.

When you think of Memphis, Tenn. you think of the blues, the music of the Mississippi delta that fills the air. It's a city known for its down home feel and one event that forever changed history -- the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Critics say Memphis stood still that day.

Now its public schools are taking a major leap into the future.

"We were a neglected school system, we were a hemorrhaging school system, we were a failing school system," said Dr. Kriner Cash, superintendent of the Memphis city schools.

Memphis city schools recently got a $90 million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with hopes of turning around the system.

"The goal is to have an effective teacher in every classroom in every course everyday, ever year," said Cash.

The grant is helping the district change aggressively and strategically.

"It's significant because it allows us to just focus on that piece of work and that's what you don't normally have. Large dollars like that to just focus in on teaching," said Cash.

Cash came to Memphis three years ago. Cash told Moore that teacher turnover was high, recruitment and retainment suffered and salaries did not match skills.

Cash told Moore teachers are now watched critiqued and then reclassified as masters, professionals or novices. It's the new model for teacher effectiveness.

When Cash arrived, half of all third-graders were failing. College readiness was just at 4 percent. The graduation hovered around 60 percent.

"That's human capital being failed. Period. We weren't faulting anybody but what you are doing about it," said Cash.

Principal Alisha Kiner is doing something. "We tell them you are your brothers keeper for the person sitting next to you," said Kiner.

The graduation rate at Memphis' historic Booker T. Washington High school was at 55 percent in 2008. Last year, nearly 82 percent of seniors got diplomas.

Kiner said the teacher effectiveness initiative is paying off.

"Nothing works without really good teachers," said Kiner. "If you don't have people who really care about kids and about their success and about how they represent you when you leave the building, then you can't make anything work."

Memphis now offers prep academies, which target students at risk of dropping out, and early college schools allowing others to finish high school and start college at the same time.

Parents have taken notice.

"Seeing her down here, it has made me appreciate there are some people who care about education for those who wouldn't otherwise be educated," said Angela Snyder a guardian of a Memphis City schools student.

Cash told Moore Memphis needed education reform and the Gates' gift was the investment needed to make it happen.

"I don't think we would have gotten this far this fast, I'm sure of it," said Cash.


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