Camping in Memphis for Optional Schools

It’s that time of year again. Optional school applications were made available for pickup starting at 6 a.m. on Monday, January 25th. This has been one of those odd “Only in Memphis” traditions that we’ve all heard has been going on forever; The optional schools, parent-organized, sidewalk camp outline at the board of education.

Shelby County Schools offers multiple optional programs across the district. Some of them specialize in college preparation, others in performing arts or even aviation. Any parent zoned for a Shelby County School can apply for one of these optional schools on a first-come-first-served basis and parents literally line up days in advance for some of the schools they deem more desirable with limited availability.

I set out to write something about our experience so parents that wanted to do this next year might know what it was like, but after two days, I didn’t think I could improve on Seth’s post on the East Memphis Mom’s blog from last year. He did briefly mention the very redundant discussions about the process which drove many parents into their tents so they could avoid having it over and over again. I thought I could talk a little about those and hopefully add a little to it.

Every year around this event, the same conversations are had. Officials at Shelby County Schools will tell everyone that there is no need to start a line multiple days in advance, and that 99.9% of barcoded applications are accepted into one of the schools of their choice. Parents that don’t have the means to leave their lives for multiple days will say that the first-come-first-served system of prioritizing applications is a disadvantage to them. Critics on social media will argue that the line is a system that usually lets kids with some advantages gain even more advantages. Parents that do choose to line up will say that they want to offer their child the best educational opportunity they can and many of them believe that optional schools are just that. Most of them will say it’s a better option than private school or the municipal school districts. Parents who aren’t aware of the line starting early will arrive on Monday morning and be frustrated that there are hundreds of people that lined up days in advance. Everyone will agree that there could be a better system but that’s usually where conversations fizzle out.

I fall into the category of parents that are opting for the campout line and plenty of people have already asked why. Why did I go stand in a line 6 days before the applications come out if 99.9% of applicants get accepted into one of the schools of their choice?

The short answer is, I’m in line for a spot in one school. We have multiple schools we’d be very happy to have our son attend but we have a clear first choice.

There are 100 spots open for the 6th grade at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy. 50 of those spots will be reserved for students within a 2 mile radius if they qualified and 20 spots would be selected by a lottery if more than 100 total students qualified. That leaves 30 spots that we know will be open and some of those will go to siblings of current students. By lunch time on Wednesday (6 days in advance) there were already over 50 parents in line for those spots. By Thursday there were over 80 parents on the list, with 60+ saying they wanted in the new optional middle school. By Monday morning when the doors opened, It was hard to count but I would guess that number was over 500.

The news stations love to come cover this story and they usually hit all those major points mentioned above, but there are a few that are talked about a little less loudly. It took a little asking around but one of the parents had a list of all the optional schools and told us that there were over 6,400 openings in the 47 schools offering optional transfers and a little over 2,700 applications were turned in last year. If those numbers are correct, it starts to make sense where the 99.9% number comes from. There certainly isn’t a shortage of spots across the district.

Another common conversation is about the many alternatives. The two common ones suggested both remove the first-come-first-served approach. One is to go to a completely merit-based system where students with the top grades get the first selections. The common critique of this method is the over-emphasis on standardized testing and the disadvantage it would give kids that are currently in struggling schools. The second alternative commonly suggested is a lottery. The parents that oppose the lottery idea argue that it leaves them completely helpless and gives them no way to try and get their kids into a better school. They don’t want to leave it 100% up to chance. Each solution solves one problem and leaves critics of another.

I have a different option that I’d love the school board to consider. It isn’t terribly different than the one in place now and doesn’t remove the first-come-first-served system. Priority is already given to students that live in a certain radius and to students with siblings already attending the school. For the open enrollment process later in the year, priority is also given to students in nearby failing schools. There are clearly parents like myself that will spend time, energy, and money to get the best opportunities for their children. Why not give them an opportunity to do that in a way that benefits the children in the school system rather than reward their ability to form and govern a line on the sidewalk in January? My idea doesn’t solve all the problems the way a few more great schools would, but I think it may offer an alternative to the line and point some of these parents in a more productive direction. I propose that a priority rule be added that bumps parents to the front of the line if they volunteer at those same schools that so many of them want to transfer from. It could also be extended to a list of schools that the Board of Education thinks could benefit from those parents’ service hours.

As of Thursday, there were 80 parents willing to give up a week of their lives and sleep on a sidewalk. The school board actually insisted on us leaving because of impending winter weather. I’d be willing to bet they’d give up that much time or more over the school year to volunteer as a crossing guard, talk with high schoolers interested in careers similar to their own, scrape gum off the bottoms of desks, tutor or any number of things our school administrators needed if it leads to the opportunities they wanted for their own kids. I know it’s not as simple as that. How much would a parent need to volunteer to get into this priority group? What happens if 300 parents do this and they all want those 30 spots? What if people lie about how much they volunteered? There are lots of details that would need to be figured out, but I think a few smart people can refine a system to test.

I suggest that we try a little experiment for the 2017 application process. Let’s pick one school for next year, maybe one like STEAM. Let’s pick a number of hours, maybe we could start at 50 or even 100 and they have to be signed off on by a principal. Then let’s pick a level of priority to give to parents who choose this route, maybe after siblings but before the campers.

My hypothesis is that parents would choose to pursue getting on this priority list as opposed to getting in line early. If they don’t, no harm, no foul. If they do, it will help until bigger problems are solved and you could roll it out to more schools in 2018. The worst possible outcome is that too many parents get involved in investing time into local public schools and they can’t all fit into the available spots in their preferred choices. Wouldn’t that be an interesting problem to solve?

Maybe this is a terrible idea but I hope this starts a conversation about a better way to offer the same great programs to parents and students that I benefited from as a Memphis City Optional School Student for 13 years at Sherwood, Colonial, and Overton.