Want Choice? Choose Excellence!

I chose Memphis.


I say that with all sincerity, understanding that a choice involves a desire, a want that is present when there are other options. When you actively choose something, you value it and  treat it differently than something that was forced upon you. A choice involves knowledge of the differences that exist and an intentional decision to decide what is best given the alternatives.

As a parent and Memphian by choice, I recognize the importance of choosing the best education that fits my child. There is tons of research that proceeds the first day of school, from word of mouth referrals to scouring websites, articles and other information on the web. Prior to this year, some parents staked tents outside of the Board of Education for days in order to be able to provide their children with the opportunities that result from a solid educational foundation.

Before I moved to Memphis, staking out in tents to be among the first in line to exercise my “right” for school choice was foreign to me. Being from Chicago, quality schools were plentiful, a standard present in almost every neighborhood within the city and in the suburbs. Naively, I thought that existed everywhere.

If we identify choice as the ability to decide what is best given equal options, then no, parents don’t have “choices” in Memphis.

Shelby County Schools recently released a tool to provide parents and other stakeholders the opportunity to measure the quality of education their students receive.  The 5-point scale score is made up of 3 categories for Elementary Students and 4 Categories for High School Students.

  • Academic Performance - 40% (35% High School)
  • Academic Growth - 40% (35% High School)
  • School Climate - 20% (10% High School)
  • College and Career Readiness - 20% (High School ONLY)

Both Academic Performance and Growth are important factors in the overall performance of a school - especially those who lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.  If a school has been an improving school or been on the Priority List, their Academic Performance score may be lower; however, it’s important for their Academic Growth score to be high(er) to show consistent improvement. Conversely, a school with consistent proficient Academic Performance may have lower Academic Growth scores, as those students are performing at or on grade-level already.

For example:

The Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, that opened just 4 years ago, is a middle school that has received the Tennessee Reward School for 2 years in a row for performing in the top 5%.  They have great data especially for academic achievement.

  • Overall - 4.03

  • Achievement - 5.00

  • Growth - 2.75

  • Climate - 4.67

Memphis Delta Preparatory School, a newly opened elementary charter school, painted a different picture with their scores.

  • Overall - 1.63

  • Achievement - 1.00

  • Growth - 1.25

  • Climate - 3.67

These scores suggest the climate of the school is “good” but the academics need significant improvement.

Typically, charter schools in Memphis were present in neighborhoods that were previously saturated with schools that were traditionally and historically under-performing. Neighborhoods such as Frayser, North and South Memphis and even Hickory Hills have both Shelby County authorized charter schools and those were authorized by the Achievement School District (ASD), but the ASD charter schools were not included in this school scoring tool.

Unfortunately, from reviewing several school scorecards from various neighborhoods across Memphis, it can be concluded what is missing is a plethora of high-quality schools in ALL neighborhoods for ALL students!

The tool reveals “pockets” of success, with isolated schools showing good improvement and consistency.  This is not bordered by poverty or a particular group of people.  Soulsville Charter School, a middle and high school in South Memphis, for example, has better scores (Overall, Academic Performance and Academic Growth)  than Mt. Pisgah, a school in the Houston Levee area and the school my daughter is zoned to for middle school.

Do I choose to send my daughter to her neighborhood school or exercise my “choice” to find an alternative school in another neighborhood?

Living in Memphis, I have realized that the majority of families are transient due to their choices in schools.

  • A “great” neighborhood doesn’t equal access to great schools

  • A feeder pattern of high-quality schools is a rarity (from elementary to high school)

  • Exercising one’s “choice” is limited to transfer requests, optional programs and waiting lists

The tool released by Shelby County Schools has allowed parents and stakeholders the opportunity to be more informed and aware of how schools measure up. Yet, what good is the information if I am not able to choose equally?  When the standard of education is not high-quality and excellence for ALL, is there real “choice”?

Are there neighborhoods that are under-served and impoverished? Yes! But there are also students who have great schools in their backyard in those areas as well. The bigger issue is the lack of a standard of excellence and high-quality education present district-wide, not just for “optional” schools or traditionally high-performing schools.  

As a parent in Memphis, I find myself making decisions around my child’s education that my parents didn’t have to make with me. I recognize how blessed my parents were in deciding my education - especially when their choices were “best” and “best”.  And they didn’t have to move across town or sit outside in tents to make those decisions.

Marlena Little

Educator, visionary and leader.

Marlena Little grew up in the inner-city of Chicago in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Yet the contrast of her home and school life provided evidence to the statement, “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going”. Having attended one of the best elementary and high-schools in the country, she was determined to live beyond the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, knowing education was the escape.

Marlena Little, a Memphian by choice, relocated to Memphis to fight for educational equity. As a teacher, it was important for Marlena’s students to see her as an example of that escape. As an administrator, Marlena challenged teachers and staff to illuminate education as the way out, yet as a visionary, Marlena has created paths of escape.

As Founder of Life Prep Academy Schools, Marlena Little has seamlessly merged her childhood with the standard of excellence imbedded in her educational experiences to provide students, regardless of any “label”, the limitless opportunities a high-quality education affords.  Her philosophical beliefs about education are the guiding principles of Life Prep.

In addition to her many roles, Marlena Little is also a mother and forever learner.  She is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and has the pleasure of raising a nine-year-old daughter.