Southwind High School is ahead of the pack in many ways, from its wireless computer labs to its brand-new gymnasium and athletic fields, 96 percent-or-better proficiency in English and algebra, and vocational classrooms in cosmetology and culinary arts with furnishings that would make a salon or restaurant envious.
The home of the Jaguars is unique in one other way. It is a 90-percent black suburban high school in a Shelby County school system that has an overall black enrollment of 34 percent. The school opened in 2007 with freshmen and sophomores and is adding a junior class this year and seniors next year. Many of them live in new subdivisions on Shelby Drive and Hacks Cross hard hit by the subprime mortgage crisis. U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald has ruled that the schools in the county system must mirror the system demographics, plus or minus 15 percent. The county school board and Superintendent Bobby Webb have appealed, and a ruling could come later this year.
"The educational value of living in the neighborhood where the school is greatly outweighs putting children on a school bus and taking them across town to achieve a racial quota," Webb says.
Southwind High is in the city of Memphis annexation reserve area. After considerable haggling, Memphis school board members approved the site, which cost an eye-popping $5.2 million, with the understanding that Memphis City Schools would take it over. But the Memphis City Council, influenced by developers who feared that city taxes would make their homes harder to sell – signs that say "NO CITY TAXES" still dot Shelby Drive near the new school – and an ambivalent response from Mayor Willie Herenton, defeated an annexation vote in 2007. County school officials now expect to keep the school until at least 2013 and possibly until 2019.
Southwind High is a classic example of the gap between the illusion and the reality of city and county government "working together." Almost all of the key city officials involved in choosing the site and approving the joint operating agreement are no longer around to face the consequences of their decisions. Former superintendent Carol Johnson moved to Boston, former school board members Sara Lewis and Wanda Halbert moved on to other jobs, the annexation specialist in the Office of Planning and Development died, and ten former city council members including annexation plan architect Tom Marshall have either resigned or did not seek reelection in 2007.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the high school in August, the lone city representative was school board member Betty Mallott. All other board members and new superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash declined invitations to attend, as did Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.
The upshot is that the county system got a huge new $40 million school with the assistance of city taxpayers. Indeed the school and its twin, Arlington High School, are the largest high schools in the state in terms of square footage. Hundreds of black students in the county system were shifted from Germantown High School to Southwind High, in defiance of Judge Donald's guidelines for creating racially balanced schools.
And students in the vaguely defined "southeast annexation corridor" got what Shelby County School Board President David Pickler calls "a neighborhood school." Its amenities include a library with 24,000 titles, computer labs with 90 computers, a gym with 1,500 bleacher seats, and state-of-the-art academic and vocational classrooms. Classes begin at 7 a.m., as they do in all county high schools, and lunch starts at 10 a.m. The school is expected to graduate its first senior class in 2010.