Why We Choose Believe Memphis Academy
My wife, April Leigh, and I believe that the ingredients of Memphis, Danny Song, and rigorous public middle school education will be a formula for incredible success beyond even the traditional scope of what it means to be successful in urban education.
Memphis. Before graduating from Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in Downtown Memphis, I developed friendships with graduate students from different programs in Memphis all of whom hailed from major American cities around the country including Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, and Colorado Springs to name a few. These transplants all shared one thing in common: None of them wanted to leave Memphis.
Growing up in Blytheville, Arkansas, sixty miles north across the Mississippi River from Memphis, I knew and loved Penny Hardaway, Huey’s, Memphis in May, and, of course in the 1990’s, Wolfchase Mall. But these graduate school friends were experiencing Memphis in a far more rich and full way than I ever had, enjoying and investing their lives in the city in such a way that they felt a part of its Renaissance. I began to independently study the history Memphis alongside my study of Torts and Constitutional Law. I learned about Yellow Fever cures that forever changed the medical trajectory of the world; listened to Royal Studios records from Al Green and Bruno Mars alongside Willie Mitchell’s niece my law school classmate; ate far too many ribs at Cozy Corner; explored the endless acres at Shelby Farms with our boys Thomas and Liam; and played basketball at STREETS Ministries alongside talented young teachers. This last group struck me. Teachers from all over our country were investing their lives with programs like the Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America, and they taught me about Memphis’ role as the heart of urban education reform in America. To say the very least, April Leigh and I were hooked on Memphis. It was a no brainer for us to Choose901, move to Downtown Memphis with our young sons, and join the team at City Leadership where I currently serve as the Recruiting Director.
We believe Memphis is about to have another renaissance that will change the world around it. At the core of this renaissance will be creative, just, groundbreaking work in urban education.
Danny Song. In 2008, I was beginning my tenure as Upperclassmen Resident Director at Union University in Jackson, TN. I was eager to lead a staff of upperclassmen RA’s in their work of caring for facilities and residents of the University. One of those RA’s was a college senior named Danny Song who I knew from seeing his work in ministry around Jackson and from his toughness upon surviving a collapsing building in an EF-4 tornado the year before. That nearly tragic storm no doubt has shaped so much of who Danny and Sarah are, whether by appearing polished on NBC’s Today Show as college juniors the morning after the tornado or providing a voice of support to classmates around them. I have always known the Songs to be people of awareness, resilience, and courage.
As I began my job in Residence Life it was Danny who taught me more than anyone else about discipline situations (“you want to leave a correction situation with the proper lesson learned but also as better friends than when you started”), facility management, and leading a team. Shockingly, he was the one who was still the college student. All that to say Danny has always been a tremendous leader, a disciplined visionary, an overcomer of hardship, an eloquent communicator, and much more. But the greatest articulated vote of confidence I can give Danny and Sarah Song is that we always knew they would do great work in urban education, because they’ve got that something that makes this challenging work possible; they’ve got what Tony Allen calls “Grit and Grind.”
Rigorous Public Middle School Education. In the summer of 1995, my parents had a decision to make. Would they send their only son to West Junior High School, the more economically wealthy, whiter school in our hometown, or would they send me to East Junior High School where my mother worked? East was over 90% African American, and though there were families with economic means that attended school, the reality was that over 75% of the students qualified for free/reduced-price lunch. But, for my educator mom and pastor-psychiatric APN father, the choice was clear: their son would be attending East Junior High School. They knew, despite societal bias and what is far too often true in communities across the nation, greater student body wealth did not ubiquitously equal greater educational opportunity. Through visionary school leadership, an amazingly devoted staff, and tons of neighborhood and broader community support, East Junior High School, with its majority minority population and its families below the poverty line, was providing the best middle school education in Northeast Arkansas. I can honestly say that the highest level of instruction and development I received was not in private elementary school or in my more economically diverse high school. I had the privilege of attending an academically rigorous middle school made up of students from socioeconomic backgrounds who too many of our schools on a national stage continue to fail over and over, again.
So, when I hear Dr. Lorraine Monroe say, ‘What is distressing is that we already know what good schools look like. We already know what to do to provide quality education. It is just that we have chosen which children we will do it for,” I join the choir with a resounding Amen. My parents had a choice of which middle school to send their child. Memphis families deserve choices even if they cannot afford to move to certain neighborhoods or send their children to private schools. Charter schools provide that choice. I am proud that Believe Memphis Academy will be one of those charters. I am also proud that Believe Memphis Academy will be, as a public school, a part of a larger local and national movement that says we can and must educate every child, no matter their socioeconomic background with rigor and excellence.
Believe Memphis Academy will be a game-changing school in this city. But the school, Danny as a school founder, and Memphis as a city, will only be as successful as the community partners who invest in them allow them to be. I encourage you to join the movement, to be a part of the future of a great city whose greatest resource is the children growing up within its zip codes, express your belief in Memphis and join the team of supporters of Believe Memphis Academy.