Charter Feature: Believe Memphis

The applicants vying for their own space in the wonderful world of charters have all been made public and as of April 3rd, submitting their applications to the Shelby County Schools district. Each of the applicants are hoping for approval and to open for enrollment for the Fall 2018 school  year.

In honor of National Charter week, I think it’s vital to highlight a few of the applicants and give a general overview of what the school model is proposing. Interestingly, there is a diverse mix of school models and designs ranging from sports-themed academies to project-based learning institutes.

New charter schools have continued to be added to the educational landscape here in Memphis and later this summer, we will get to see which school(s) and school leader(s) makes it through the approval process and on to providing a high-quality option to our students in Memphis.

The first  spotlight is Mr. Danny Song , Founder of  Believe Memphis Academy. He shares his educational journey, which is grounded in the desire to provide a quality education for memphis.

Believe Memphis Academy will prepare scholars in grades 4 through 8 with the academic rigor, robust supports, and leadership development necessary to excel in high school, thrive in college and lead lives full of opportunity.

As a first-generation immigrant to this country, that word “opportunity” has special meaning to my life. It was for opportunity that my parents took the risk to leave their home country in search of a better life for themselves and their children. It was for opportunity that my father pursued his education, ultimately earning a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in chemical engineering. It was for opportunity that my parents always emphasized the value and importance of education in our house.

My senior year of college, I was faced with choices and opportunities. One of them, however, took me by surprise: the opportunity to teach in Memphis to leverage education as a tool for social justice. The Memphis Teacher Residency claimed that “urban education is the greatest social justice and civil rights issue in America today.” I did not fully understand the implications of that statement until I was standing in front of 11th and 12th graders at a local, historic high school in Memphis as their 11th grade English teacher.

Though my students were close to graduating from high school, many of them functionally read, at best, at a middle school level. As a first-year college graduate, many of my students were only 3-5 years younger than me. But, the opportunities that faced our lives were already vastly apart. It was in front of my students that I met the faces of the achievement gap. It was there I learned the names of those impacted by the injustice of the opportunity gap that plagues so many communities across our nation – a plague from which Memphis is not immune and, perhaps, particularly susceptible.

Teaching my students that year sparked an 8-year journey for me to found and lead Believe Memphis Academy. In those 8 years, I was on the founding team of three different charter schools – two in Memphis and, most recently, one in Nashville. I served in the capacity of founding teacher, dean of students, and assistant principal. The experiences I had over these years taught me three lessons: the children are not the problem, community engagement is absolutely necessary, and Memphis is the place.

First lesson: the children are not the problem. Perhaps the greatest disservice we give to children, particularly children of color growing up in poverty, is the disservice of low expectations. I have seen, repeatedly, children rise and fall to the expectations that are placed upon them by the adults. As a school community, Believe Memphis Academy will hold students to academic and character bars of excellence that they deserve. We firmly believe children need academic rigor, robust supports, and leadership development in order to be successful. Therefore, those form the pillars of our school design and beliefs.

Second lesson: community engagement is absolutely necessary. Of the myriad of excuses our society often accepts as to why children in low-income communities perform poorly in school, perhaps none is more insidious than the excuse of disengaged families. I have never – never – met a family in my 8 years of teaching in South City, Orange Mound, Binghampton, and North Nashville who was disengaged in their child’s education. The families whom I have met were dedicated, protective, tenacious, and hopeful. Too many schools, however, whether by inconsistent communication, disrespectful interactions, or decisions made without their input, push families away from being meaningfully engaged in their child’s education. Believe Memphis Academy will be a school that values the partnership of families as vital members of the school community. Through a family advisory council, monthly family engagement nights, and home visits to all families, we will ensure families are empowered to be active partners in the school.

Third lesson: Memphis is the place. Dr. King said it before I did – “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” From civil rights, to music, to sports, to business, to cuisine, what happens in Memphis does indeed impact the world. When Linda Brown, the CEO of Building Excellent Schools – a national nonprofit that recruits, trains, and supports individuals to found high-achieving schools in high-needs communities – was interviewing me for the Fellowship, I told her, “Linda, the only way I could do this is if you would let me do it in Memphis.” There is a community of individuals and organizations in Memphis, who love our city, recognize we have much to improve, and are committed to doing the work necessary to do the work. I am honored to be able to call this city my home.

We do this work, in this city, because we believe Memphis has the children and teachers who can courageously and deliberately change the world (again). The world that must be changed right now is that demography too often determines destiny. The world that must be changed right now is that too often an excellent education is absent in low-income communities. We believe it can be our children in Memphis who can be leaders of the next generation toward this change.

Next spotlight, Supremacy Sports Academy

Danny Song is currently a Fellow with Building Excellent Schools. He is the Lead Founder and proposed Head of School of Believe Memphis Academy. Believe Memphis Academy is a public, tuition-free charter school proposed in open in the Fall of 2018 with grades 4-5. At full capacity, the school will serve students from grades 4-8. For more information about Believe Memphis Academy, or to find ways to get involved and support its mission, please contact Danny Song at dsong@buildingexcellentschools.org.