Problem: Memphis' workforce has a skills gap in its workforce.
The area mirrors national trends, and many local companies simply cannot find enough qualified employees to fill their business needs. They would hire them if they existed.
A skilled workforce is created in part by improving education. A 2012 City of Memphis study found that “only 23 percent of Memphians over the age of 25 have a college degree. As a result, a significant percentage of the workforce is in dire need of effective services to boost basic skills and work readiness as a foundation for occupational skills.”
Numerous programs have been created to close the gap between what local industry needs in its workforce and what actually exists here. But, what if the problem could be addressed at a more fundamental level, while the future workforce is still enrolled in school?
That's what one innovative idea making its way though Shelby County Schools (SCS) seeks to do — and it seeks to do it in a way you might not expect.
In many cases, public schools have deficiencies not in the quality of the teachers, administration or students, but simply in their facilities.
At SCS, individual schools receive facilities improvements on a rotating basis, but usually that means only necessary safety and basic aesthetic upgrades are made. There’s usually not money in the budget for new construction or significantly renovating facilities that are often many decades old.
Case in point: White Station High School (WSHS). Because it is one of SCS’ "best" schools, producing students who perform better than the district average in every subject on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, one might surmise that the school has everything it needs to achieve excellence.
That would be an incorrect assumption, says WSHS vice principal Carrye Holland .
“People think we have everything we need. We’re doing great things. But, we’re called the Spartans for a reason,” Holland says with a laugh. “We do it, but with limited space and means. We have about 2,250 students. They’re all in classrooms and there’s a roof over their heads, but we don’t have the space for [dedicated] science labs. We know we’re the best, but our facilities are lackluster compared to us.”
Students conduct some physics experiments for classwork, for example, in school hallways or in the parking lot.
“If we had regular, direct access to science labs, our students could benefit,” Holland says. “We can’t do it with the number of kids we have. What could we do if we had the space?”
Multiply that conundrum by an entire school system trying to educate and prepare 116,000 students.
“If I had the space, the teachers could write the grants to get the equipment to fill it,” Holland says. “You can’t write a grant to get the building.”
“Our public schools are decayed,” says Richard Myers , an attorney at Apperson Crump and parent of a current White Station student. “Things are falling apart because there has been no substantive investment in their physical plant in years. We barely get enough to pay teachers. So, how do we find new sources of revenue?"
"You can’t throw money at a problem," he adds, "but you get what you pay for.”
One possible solution: A plan several years in the making. Last fall, SCS changed its policy so that companies and individuals can make donations for naming rights to facilities. It’s a fundraising model that has proven successful in colleges and private schools, but it’s not common in the public school realm.
“It gives an opportunity for people to support public schools financially,” says SCS board member Billy Orgel .
Myers has been working with others to develop a model whereby WSHS could implement money coming from private sources to upgrade facilities. He enlisted the University of Memphis Department of Architecture chair Michael Hagge and professor Tim Michael , who is also principal and owner ofDesignshop PLLC , to create a comprehensive master plan for WSHS — all pro bono. Grad students conducted a charrette to determine the school’s long-term facility needs. Flintco conducted a cost study of the improvements, also pro bono.
Now, WSHS is armed with a master plan, including conceptual designs, which can be taken to companies and individuals for consideration for naming rights.
Additionally, the 501(c)(3) local nonprofit SchoolSeed has been secured as a vehicle to establish a temporarily restricted fund to facilitate donations and to make payments when the actual construction is performed. This provides a level of security for the donor, who will be empowered if they so choose to approve designs and select architects and contractors to be hired for the construction. It would be mutually agreed upon by the school, whose goal is the end product of the facility, not how it gets built and by whom.
This spring, the U of M is putting the same kind of master plan for Whitehaven High School, working with its principal, Vincent Hunter, to enumerate the school's particular needs.
“We have this dream,” Holland says. “I want to foster a love of science in the kids, to give them the access to what they need, and connect them to careers. They are crammed in a [lab] the size of my office. It’s a good size for an office, but a terrible size for a lab.”
It seems like a modest proposal. Because what schools like WSHS, Whitehaven, and potentially all of SCS, if the model proves successful, are looking for isn’t state-of-the-art facilities. They just want facilities conducive to basic levels of learning.
“Nothing extravagant, simply reasonable,” Myers describes it.
So far as Myers is aware, this model has never been tried anywhere else in the country. But, it just might break the cycle of poor educational facilities, an under-educated workforce and a lagging economy in Memphis.
By Greg Akers