Ideally, an organization would not require restructuring. It might and should be focused on the future, but it would not be worried about it. It would already be running effectively and efficiently and would simply be looking at how to keep that success a reality. That is not the current state of our school system, unfortunately. At one time, however, our school system was running effectively. This is evidenced if you start having conversations with the people within our community. Many of them are products of this school system and would have easily been considered “college and career ready” upon graduation. They are now leaders in their workplaces and our community as a whole. They have pride in what they experienced but many of them seem to not know where to place that pride now. This is because the school system they knew does not resemble the school system they now see. Many of them, myself included, are unsure if they would send their children to the schools they once happily attended. This shift coincides with different large-scale changes that have taken place within the school system since the early 2000s and will be discussed throughout this article. There is a need for a long, intentional look at the current state of the JMCSS and how to somehow get it moving in a more efficient and hopeful direction. The school system is not what it was, and will not be for some time. To get back to where it was prior to decisions such as magnet schools, intermediate schools, no longer intermediate schools, etc., will take time. It will also take commitment. Commitment will require belief. Belief will be much easier if a clear and promising plan is presented.
Vision2020 is a plan to restructure our school system in an attempt to return it to an effective and efficient state. This restructuring is likely to include closing or repurposing schools and changing the school zones. Options include simply closing certain schools due to our overall low capacity percentages, closing and changing the purpose of one or more schools, changing the elementary, middle, and high school structure to some other variation, and community schools. These are not all the options, but they are examples of what is being considered. The reasons these options are being considered is due to the low efficiency with which our schools are operating. It is more normal within the school system for schools to be under 75% capacity than it is for them to be operating above 90%. This is not an efficient usage of facilities or resources. The school system has shrunk, and we must now decide how to address this shrinkage. Plans have been developed and presented by outside consultants and internal committees. These committees are composed of teachers, leaders, parents, and other members of the community. There are three committees: the innovative education and design committee, the facilities management and operations committee, and the executive sounding board committee. Forums and meetings have been held, and a website exists (www.jmcss2020.com) that has most of this information nearly organized for the public. The School Board is preparing to review alternatives, and a decision on the restructuring plan is expected to happen in December of this year. Short term changes will begin as soon as next school year. If you have not gotten involved with this discussion, the time is now. There are 4 public meetings (September 21 – 23) and two open houses on September 23rd before the alternatives are reviewed. The goal is for more funding and better usage of resources. The goal is to strengthen our community through our school system, and it takes all entities working together. Go to the website and find a way to get involved before you have missed your chance.
As a product of this school system, I know what it was like. I know the pride that students had in their schools, and the security that parents had in those schools. Both students and parents trusted that the student would be able to get as much out of their high school experience as they put in. If a parent wanted their student to finish school in Advance Placement classes and the student was willing to do the work, the opportunity was there. If a parent wanted their student to one day get into medical or law school, JMCSS was not considered a hindrance. There was a time when ANY student could attend school in the JMCSS K–12 and feel confident that their transcripts and test scores would have them prepared for whatever their post-graduation plans entailed. As a student during the introduction of magnet high schools, I feel like this is when the downfall of our school system began. I feel as if I had one experience during my time as a student, and as a teacher within the system now, my students have had a completely different experience. I have many, many personal feelings when it comes to the JMCSS. I attended Pope Elementary, Tigrett Middle, JCM, and Madison Academic. I am currently in my fourth year teaching at JCM. I am using these experiences as a background to the need for Vision 2020 and the hope that it desperately needs to provide this members of the community.
I grew up on Pleasant Plains Road in north Jackson. I attended Pope Elementary, which was the closest school to my house. I enjoyed my time there and knew of no complaints in regards to Pope. I then went to Tigrett Middle, which I now realize was across town but not significantly further from my house than any other middle school of which I can think. I thoroughly enjoyed being a Thunderbolt and experiencing our athletic dominance on both the gridiron and basketball court. After my 6th grade year, there was no longer a 6th grade at Tigrett. We only had 7th and 8th grades. This was because of the short-lived introduction of and experimentation with intermediate schools. There was no real difference to my classmates and me except that we were once again the youngest in the school. My younger brother, however, started what would be his second of four different schools in four years without my family ever moving. From 4th through 7th grade he attended Pope Elementary, Andrew Jackson (Elementary?), High Park (Intermediate?), and finally Tigrett Middle School. All of this occurred without my family moving. His experience was a little different than mine. This was the first large-scale change within our school system that I noticed, and I believe that its lack of success foreshadowed what was to come. I do not know the reasons behind introducing intermediate schools and then going away from them after a couple of years, but I know that it did not make much sense from the outside looking in. In my opinion, this was the first example of our district leadership trying something for the sake of trying it. It was quickly corrected. The second example, magnet schools, still lingers and effects the school system today, however.
After Tigrett, I moved on the JCM. (It was not until a baseball game at North Side during my junior year that I realized how much closer North Side was to my house than JCM). I now know that the real reason I attended a school across town is because of strange zoning policies and a need to force diversity onto institutions. This worked while the schools were running effectively and efficiently, but that is no longer the case. Parents can ignore inexplicable zoning if their child is still attending a school that is providing them the opportunities that they desired. This was the case when I started high school in 2002-03. At that time none of my friends that lived out north complained about being zoned across town. We actually all wanted to be at JCM. There was not a single high school in the system that students and parents were actively trying to leave. The amount of students that frequently change schools that is present in the school system today was not there. You started at a school and finished there unless you moved.
My freshman year at JCM was perfectly normal. Again, no one was upset about being zoned for JCM. Friends from Tigrett, Jackson, North Parkway, St. Mary’s, and USJ middle schools all merged together into a smoothly functioning body. We were located on two campuses plus the Oman Arena. There was a mixture of students who had no other choice than to attend public school and children of doctors, bankers, executives, etc. We regularly won academic decathlon. Everything seemed good. Then, it came time for registration for the upcoming school year. I noticed a friend of mine had a different color sheet than I did. I asked her why that was. She said it was for “Liberty”. I said, “What the heck is Liberty?” To me, this is when the aforementioned downturn within the school system really began. Once magnet schools were introduced (especially an Academic Magnet School), it felt as if a stigma was placed on every other school. It was like parents of students that were not yet in high school, suddenly felt that Madison was where their child had to be. If they could not get their child into Madison, they would find a way to avoid the other high schools until their child made it through the waiting list and got accepted at Madison. This is not meant to be an attack on Madison. I myself spent my senior year there. I am simply pointing out the negative system-wide effect that these changes seemed to cause.
The following year, Madison Academic Magnet High School opened up in what was JCM’s west campus. It took the majority of the honors program (students and teachers) from the three public high schools. It took the academic decathlon teacher, a cafeteria, and the auditorium among other things from JCM. Liberty Technological Magnet School also opened that year. From JCM, it mainly just took the players that wound up winning consecutive state basketball championships, a few football players, and all but three incoming freshman baseball players. Other than students who simply went wherever they were zoned to go, this change essentially left JCM with upperclassmen and students that were locked in by sports. This also started the time of negative press. I remember thinking things were being written about us that none of us seemed to be actually feeling. We still enjoyed JCM. We were much smaller and would become smaller with each passing year, but we were still happy. We adjusted. I feel similar experiences occurred at both North Side and South Side at this time.
One example I use to show what changed following freshman year involves honors Chemistry. I took both honors Biology and honors Chemistry as a sophomore. However, I did not one experiment during honors chemistry. Why was this? All the equipment was now at Madison. This is not to say anything negative about Madison, it is simply to show a lack of planning/plan by the district. It was not so much the fact that the school system decided the change things up by adding two new magnet high schools as it was the fact that there did not seem to be a plan for it. It seemed from the inside as if they maybe had some extra money laying around and decided “Hey, what if we did magnet schools?” Another example of poor would be the fact that they built a brand new campus for Liberty, yet made the track one plane too short to be used for meets. USJ was the only place in Jackson then and now that could host track meets. Track meets are very, very long. The options were USJ or Dyersburg. We built a brand new school with a brand new football stadium and track but could not make it big enough to host meets when no other school in the district had or has a track that can host meets. Maybe there was a well-intentioned reason for this. To me, it just seems haphazard.
Following my junior year, I told my parents I did not want to play baseball that summer. During the middle of the summer, I was told I got accepted into Madison. I asked, “When did I apply?” It did not matter. I was on my way. It was not until I got there that I realized I was at another school for my senior year. I had plenty of friends there because they went to JCM with me when I was a freshman. You did have to do work, but that was because it was every school’s honors program put into one building. In my opinion, we sacrificed our school system, so we could have a school of 400 students that are supposed to perform well do so. Honors students are honors students. They do not need their own school in order to be honors students.
The senior class I graduated with at Madison in 2006 was essentially the same freshman class I attended JCM with in 2003. Obviously, there were other students from other schools, but the majority of the students I had already attended high school with at our original high school. We could have just stayed at the school that already existed with the teachers that were already there and learned the same things we were already going to learn. And by doing this, we could have kept the equilibrium within the system. Once the original high schools lost their teachers and students to the new schools, they inevitably started performing a lower levels. This happens when you suddenly take the majority of the highest performing students from each school, put them in another school, and compare them to their original schools. This is not to say the students were not learning, but people felt differently about them and about sending their children there. This process was slow at first, but a lack of full incoming freshman classes is hard to overcome. I attended JCM when we were a 5A school with over 1600 students (and to my knowledge, one of if not the largest high school is West Tennessee outside of Memphis). At the time my original freshman class graduated, they had fewer than 1000 students. A few years after that, the school had under 600 students and was getting smaller. That is a drastic change. That does not mean it had to be a negative change, but a very thorough and structured plan of support is needed for a situation like that. Instead, we as students felt as if they had no plan for us at all. It was if they wanted our school to not exist but did not want to shut us down. We assumed they were just hoping we would disappear or something to that effect.
With all that being said about things within the district during that time, I would love to see a chart showing the growth in private high schools in Jackson following the introduction of our two public magnet schools in 2003-04. I know that Trinity Christian Academy has gone from a gymacefetorium (this term will only make sense to you if you or someone you knew attended TCA when it was located off of Airways) to a brand new campus with brand new athletic facilities. Essentially, they were pretty small and making what they had work the best they could, and now they do not appear to be as small and have a brand new campus all the way across town and are still adding athletic complexes. That is great for them. I like Trinity. I led Young Life there for over four years. Maybe it is a coincidence that they grew as our school system declined. I am simply using them as an example of how I believe we as a school system gifted students to private schools, home school, and other school districts. And to attend any of these alternative options, you typically can’t be low income. So, essentially, we gifted money and support to these other places. Now, I am not saying everyone left the JCMSS, but a lot of people did. I am not saying people with money are the only people that matter. My family could not have afforded to send me anywhere else. I am simply saying that taking away such a significant portion of any “type” of student effects a school system. In this case, we took away a good deal of students from families with a high enough income to seek alternate means by which to educate their children. There must be equilibrium, but it must also be natural. This goes back to zoning. Let students go to the place that makes the most sense. If there is a school down the road, the student should go to that school. I know many people that lived across the street from North Side or down the road from JCM but attended the other school. This makes little sense for multiple reasons. The main reason I would say is transportation. If you are within walking distance to a school, why send a bus across town to pick you up and take you to some other school?
I do not envy anyone that works at the Board of Education or is on the School Board and has to make decisions regarding the direction of our school system. I do not know why it was decided the magnet schools were the way to go. I just know that surely the plan was not to run off so many potential students and leave our high schools performing at the low levels at which they are performing. However, we must now figure out a way not to undo the past but to make the most of the future. Our school system is struggling. There are a lot of reasons why it is struggling. The people who can afford to avoid it do. The people that cannot avoid the system just try to make the most of their experience (and hope their child gets into Madison).
I have opinions about why community schools are our best option for now, but the main thing that needs to happen is activity. We cannot sit around waiting for the system to get fixed before we hop on board. If we want our children to be able to attend the schools they are meant to attend, we must do something about it. We need competent leaders but we also need support. It cannot start at the high school level. The high schools need to be appealing enough to keep students in the elementary and middle schools, but we need students starting, staying and finishing. We need PIE partners (Partners in Education) that are truly partners. We need products of the system to not write it off but to help it out. We need to get on board or quit complaining. We need to also be willing to persevere so long as there is reason to believe. Patience is important, but patience does no good if you are not going anywhere. We need leaders that will do things that need to be done rather than doing things simply to do them. That is how we got where we are today.
Your options in regards to Vision2020 are to go to the website, go to the meetings, talk to people you know that work within the district, talk to parents, talk to students, and decide what it is you want. We must know what we want if we are going to accomplish anything. Blindly making decisions based on a coin flip or by default and hoping they work out does not sound like a great idea to me. What sounds appealing is a community having a conversation that is about the common good. What is best for our children? What is best for our industry? What is best for our teachers? How can we make JMCSS a destination for both students and teachers again? This requires dialogue. Talk to the people you know and get involved. If you have never been aware of the dealings of the school system, start. If you have fallen away, reinvest. It really does matter. The years a student spends in school are crucial years of their life and school is where they spend a lot of their time during that season. There is only so much that can be done if district leaders, teachers, parents, alumni, and other members of the community are working independently of one another or not at all. At least while such a large decision (Vision2020) looms, start paying attention. Don’t sit idly by and then pick apart how poorly you think things are going after the fact. If you do not enter the conversation, you have no voice. Use the voice that you have and start a conversation.
Brad Ferrell was born and raised in Jackson and now teaches math and coaches baseball at Jackson Central-Merry High School. He and his wife Kristen have two children: Noah Edward and Virginia Graham.
Header image taken by Kristi Woody.