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    Geoff Calkins: First Soulsville graduates ride 'freedom' train to college

    By Geoff Calkins - The Commercial Appeal -

    They walked down the aisle, all tassled and gowned, the 51 members of the first graduating class of the Soulsville Charter School.

    ESPN basketball commentator Digger Phelps said a few words of congratulations. Stax CEO Kirk Whalum played the sax and delivered the commencement address. Parents cheered. A baby cried. The orchestra played "Pomp and Circumstance."

    But this is not just another graduation story. Or, if it is, an opportunity will be lost. This is not just another graduation story because all 51 of those graduates are going to college. In one of the poorest parts of Memphis. A perfect 51 of 51.

    What other schools in Memphis bat 1.000? St. Mary's maybe? Memphis University School?

    Kids at those places were bound for college the moment they were born. Kids at Soulsville were bound for nowhere fast.

    But now they're going to college. Every single one of them. They're going to Vanderbilt and Tennessee and Connecticut College. They're going to Samford and Memphis and Wesleyan.

    "Wow, why isn't this the role model, not just for Memphis, but for the entire country?" said Phelps.

    I'd settle for Memphis, to start.

    Why isn't this the role model for Memphis? Why not learn from something that clearly works?

    We've been arguing about education for what seems like decades now. We've employed lawyers and lobbyists and consultants and advertising firms.

    So why not just ask NeShante Brown, the executive director of the Soulsville Charter School? She was born in Memphis and raised in Memphis. She graduated from Central High School, went to Princeton, then came home to help kids who reminded her of herself.

    How did you do it, NeShante? What's the key to the Soulsville miracle?

    "We have a lot of freedom," she said. "We have freedom with respect to curriculum, freedom with respect to hiring, freedom with respect to the culture we establish."

    What the school doesn't have: Some massive bureaucracy telling it what to do.

    I don't care which bureaucracy, either. The county one or the city one. Instead of arguing about which bureaucracy should be in charge of everything, how about urging both to get out of the way?

    Or maybe you should talk with the public school teachers I've talked with over the past few years, who roll their eyes at the edicts sent down from on high.

    Does anyone think the solution to this city's education challenges will be found in the next round of edicts? That the next set of memos will do the trick?

    Of course not. The solution isn't going to emerge from a central office. It's going to emerge from places like Soulsville.

    And, yes, that means more charter schools. In New Orleans, 80 percent of public school students attend charter schools. It's working there for the same reasons it's working at Soulsville. Because freedom from bureaucracy tends to be good.

    At Soulsville, kids go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Teachers have to be there longer than that. Often, there are programs on Saturday. When Soulsville kids are waiting in line -- at the cafeteria, to go to the restroom, wherever -- they have to be reading books.

    Soulsville has two college counselors for 51 seniors. Every senior has to take something called "senior seminar." It's essentially a focused primer on applying to colleges.

    "It's intense," said Mark Wender, the chief operating officer of Stax, "but it works."

    And it works despite a distinct lack of support from many in the Memphis City School system, who view a success story like Soulsville as a threat.

    For example: Soulsville has a spanking new building. But only because the school system wouldn't allow it to use Stafford Elementary, right down the street.

    To charter opponents, schools like Soulsville "siphon off" money that could be used in traditional public schools. But that language only makes sense if the goal is to support the bureaucracy instead of the kids. If the focus were on the kids, we wouldn't care about the bureaucracy. We'd only care about what works.

    We'd care about Kadijah Pearson, who's heading to Agnes Scott College. We'd care about Tyler Burkley Ryan, who's going to Earlham. We'd care about Precious Fox who's going to Memphis. We'd care about Jasmine Mack, the valedictorian, who's going to Wesleyan.

    "I stand here representing the first graduating class of the revolution," said Mack.

    I'm with her. How about you?