Here are two recent news items that have everything to do with what is the matter with Memphis City Schools and the knee-jerk response to fixing them.
First, on the week after Labor Day, thousands of students came to school for the first time even though classes started three weeks earlier. Sadly, these 10,000 or more "drop-ins" are as much a part of MCS tradition as the 30 percent or so who drop out.
The enrollment in the first week of class was just under 93,000. By the fourth week of school, enrollment was just over 105,000, according to MCS, with more latecomers still out there biding their time.
There's every incentive to report a big number. The more students enrolled, the more money MCS gets. The difference between 93,000 students and 105,000 students is more than $125 million in funding. MCS is making an informed guess about enrollment, which ebbs and flows and won't be finalized until mid-November. It may well be below 100,000.
Second, in the same week, Memphis City Council Chairman Harold Collins was quoted saying that MCS "is in desperate need of capital improvements," and therefore the council ought not delay in coughing up more money for schools and sending taxpayers the bill.
More money for MCS is not the answer. The drop-ins and their parents don't need computers and bigger auditoriums, they need calendars and alarm clocks.
Drop-ins who show up after Labor Day wreak havoc with classroom order, scheduling, and teacher morale.
"Teachers are sometimes reassigned entire classes due to the chaos," a young teacher told me. "The week following Labor Day brings a sense of dread for all MCS teachers. The fragile order and culture that has been established in classrooms gets blown apart by the newcomers, most of whom bring along a lawless bravado in lieu of your standard pencils and notebooks."
So it goes, year after year. Drop-ins are accepted as part of the local culture, that's just the way it is. As long as they show up once in a while in September, MCS can count them, and thereby increase its enrollment and funding. And politicians can divert attention to the phony issue of the "desperate" need for capital improvements in the schools.
The truth is, MCS has had more than $1 billion in capital improvements in this decade. There are new schools all over town, including Downtown Elementary, Manassas and Douglass high schools in North Memphis, White Station Middle School in East Memphis, Brewster Elementary in Binghamton, and Cordova and Southwind high schools in annexation areas. Major improvements have been made to Central High School and Snowden Elementary and Middle School in Midtown, two of the oldest schools in Memphis.
Central and Snowden also happen to be two of the most popular and academically successful schools in the system despite each of them being more than 100 years old.
A new school is not necessarily a better school — or a full one. Last year Douglass High School had 325 students and Manassas had 569 students. White Station High School, which is the top-performing school in the system despite not receiving any big capital improvements in several years, had 2,091 students.
Manassas and Douglass will have more students this year because attendance zones will be redrawn. But taking students from other high schools is not the same as growth. The growth of MCS, if any, is due to the annexation of Cordova, Berryhill, and Hickory Hill.
MCS has 209 schools, including at least 15 charter schools. As enrollment declines, more and more buildings have surplus capacity. But no superintendent since Willie Herenton has had the stomach to close schools.
Herenton's successors — Gerry House, Johnnie Watson, Carol Johnson, and Kriner Cash — have had the same philosophy as a certain Midtown restaurant that advertises "Free Burgers Tomorrow" above its outdoor patio. For free burgers and serious budget cutting, it's never tomorrow.