Is Memphis’ ‘Berlin Wall’ Coming Down After School Merger?

Posted on September 1, 2014

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By Breanna Sommers

mergThe complex in downtown Memphis has two adjacent buildings: the Frances E. Coe for Memphis City Schools and George H. Barnes for Shelby County Schools. The irony that two buildings so close to one another would serve students of starkly different demographics and needs is unsettling. Separate directors, secretaries, and school boards provided the same function and no one thought before 2011 to combine to serve a unified and equalized Shelby County School District. Until they did. Chaos, federal court mandates, and hatred swirled around these buildings, but once the merger went into effect, cold silence.

The Frances E. Coe Administration Building was home to both the Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools during the merger in 2013. The corridor linking the wings had double-locked doors, and the glass panels had been covered by particle boards. Irving Hamer, the deputy superintendent of Memphis City Schools, described the barrier as “our Berlin Wall” (Dillon, 2011).

Like the East and West Germany divide brought further distrust and conflict,
the merger did not create a unified and accepting group of people coming together for
one cause. For the 2013-2014 school year, the wall physically came down, but the metaphor remained. Even before the merger was final, whispered rumors as well as outright displeasure had parents and school officials calling for another divide.

This time suburban districts are using geographical distance rather than a physical wall to divide themselves. Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have all created their own school districts to insulate themselves and their children from inner city Memphis students. This repetition in history looks much like the white flight in Memphis during the late 1960’s that created a surge in private schools. The only downside to the new suburban districts is that they are no longer united together.

So what changed after three years of painful uprooting? It appears that the original plan from the Memphis City School board to create unity and equality is another failed attempt. Hopefully, the new Shelby County School District can forge ahead with innovative policies and a motivated staff to offset the damage and provide quality education all on their own in the coming school years, despite their serious socio-economic disadvantage.

Breanna R. Sommers is a sophomore at Rhodes College and is an Urban Education Policy major. She plans to positively affect education reform through innovative policies and use education as a tool to fight poverty. She is not a Memphis native, but feels a deep connection to the vibrant city.

Is Memphis’ Berlin Wall Coming Down After School Merger?
By: Breanna Sommers

The complex in downtown Memphis has two adjacent buildings: the Frances E. Coe for Memphis City Schools and George H. Barnes for Shelby County Schools. The irony that two buildings so close to one another would serve students of starkly different demographics and needs is unsettling. Separate directors, secretaries, and school boards provided the same function and no one thought before 2011 to combine to serve a unified and equalized Shelby County School District. Until they did. Chaos, federal court mandates, and hatred swirled around these buildings, but once the merger went into affect, cold silence.

The Frances E. Coe Administration Building was home to both the Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools during the merger in 2013. The corridor linking the wings had double-locked doors, and the glass panels had been covered by particle boards. Irving Hamer, the deputy superintendent of Memphis City Schools, described the barrier as “our Berlin Wall” (Dillon, 2011).

Like the East and West Germany divide brought further distrust and conflict,
the merger did not create a unified and accepting group of people coming together for
one cause. For the 2013-2014 school year, the wall physically came down, but the metaphor remained. Even before the merger was final, whispered rumors as well as outright displeasure had parents and school officials calling for another divide.

This time suburban districts are using geographical distance rather than a physical wall to divide themselves. Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have all created their own school districts to insulate themselves and their children from inner city Memphis students. This repetition in history looks much like the white flight in Memphis during the late 1960’s that created a surge in private schools. The only downside to the new suburban districts is that they are no longer united together.

So what changed after three years of painful uprooting? It appears that the original plan from the Memphis City School board to create unity and equality is another failed attempt. Hopefully, the new Shelby County School District can forge ahead with innovative policies and a motivated staff to offset the damage and provide quality education all on their own in the coming school years, despite their serious socio-economic disadvantage.

Breanna R. Sommers is a sophomore at Rhodes College and is an Urban Education Policy major. She plans to positively affect education reform through innovative policies and use education as a tool to fight poverty. She is not a Memphis native, but feels a deep connection to the vibrant city.

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Posted in: Education