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    Chris Peck: Giant leap for education is at hand

    By Chris Peck - The Commercial Appeal -

    No captains are made in calm waters. That old proverb offers an apt reminder of the need for leadership in Memphis right now on the remarkable plan that can make Greater Memphis public schools truly great.

    The plan must navigate turbulent waters in the days ahead. Most people won't read it. Many will be scared off when they hear about reinventing the schools. Those with closed minds will fall back on platitudes and assumptions that allow them to dismiss the plan before even giving it a chance.

    Give it a chance.

    When you do, you likely will reach this stunning conclusion: Memphis has a chance to make a great leap ahead in public education. A great leap for city kids. A great leap for suburban kids. A great leap for the Memphis workforce that will pay dividends for generations to come.

    It's possible because of a rare convergence of forces -- the consolidation of the Memphis and Shelby County school districts, the millions of dollars and advice sent to Memphis by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help build a model of workable urban schools, the guarantee of support for a major school retooling fed by federal Race to the Top funds and vetted by the best thinkers in the country on public education.

    All this has come together in Memphis over the past few months. A team of local education experts, advocates for children and respected community leaders formed at the direction of the state legislature has now listened to 14,000 local residents, held 150 meetings, and spent weeks analyzing best practices to see if the best from elsewhere could be fit to address the Memphis challenge. This local group, known as the Transition Planning Commission, ably led by Barbara Prescott and Jim Boyd, has now come up with a plan. It's hard not to be giddy at what they have accomplished.

    ''Really amazing ''is the way TPC member Daniel Kiel, a law school professor at the University of Memphis and nationally published researcher on education, describes what is on the table in Memphis. ''This is a once-in-50-years opportunity for the city.''

    That's the problem, in a way. Taking a giant leap ahead isn't something everybody feels comfortable doing. The human fear of change, Memphis' intractable struggle with low self-esteem, plus our region's frustrating tendency to filter every issue through the prism of race, will conspire against the great leap forward.

    ''Because people don't have an accurate view of our schools today,'' admitted Kenya Bradshaw, a TPC member who is executive director of Stand For Children, a Memphis education reform group. She notes most Memphis households don't have kids in school. And even families that do often assume everything is going along OK without taking the time for a deep dive into where our schools face their greatest challenges.

    "That's our challenge,'' Bradshaw explained. ''What we have in this plan is unlike anything else in the country. No big-city school district besides Memphis has had the luck, the will and the opportunity to basically redo it all for kids and do it right.''

    What does doing it right look like? Here's a sampling from the TPC plan:

    1) Universal preschool opportunities for all kids. Evidence all over the country says getting kids started off right in school is the single biggest step toward a successful education. Today, one out of two kids in Memphis isn't ready to enter first grade. The TPC plan can change this metric.

    2) The Office of Innovation, a major shift from the status quo because there will be no status quo. Standards will be set and the office will focus unwaveringly on the best ways to make sure the measures of success are being met. Getting stale will not be an option.

    3) Every kid ready for a job or for postsecondary education by graduation. This means doubling the advanced placement offerings for the academically inclined while also offering real-time training in a trade for kids who are best suited for that future.

    And on the operational and money side of things:

    1) At least $70 million a year in efficiencies, and that's the low end of what the TPC thinks can be done. At minimum, they have found ways to operate a unified school district for $70 million a year less than is currently spent to operate separate city and county schools.

    2) More autonomy at successful schools and more scrutiny at failing schools. Schools that consistently raise student achievement will be able to hire, fire and manage their own staff. School that are failing kids will be advised and changes will be made without hesitation to get the school back on track.

    2) Reward good teachers, get rid of poor ones. A restructured teacher compensation system means the best teachers and principals will earn more, while those teachers whose students aren't making progress will be counseled, given a chance to improve, then rooted out if they continue to fail.

    Can Memphis even give the plan a fair hearing, what with our politics, racial fears, city/county rivalries? Even as the TPC's plan rolls out, many suburban communities are barreling toward creating their own school districts from scratch -- without doing a fraction of the research and study that the TPC has done to create a model district.

    But you, the parents, the community leaders, the lifelong Memphians, can be leaders on this. The TPC's plan goes out for public debate this week. Go to a meeting. Get your arms around this remarkable blueprint.

    Embrace the opportunity to do something for all our kids -- and fight the fear that nothing can ever change.

    Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at (901) 529-2390 or at peck@commercialappeal.com.