Cooper-Young’s neighborhood school: a call to action

By Ginger Spickler

Picture a hundred-year-old elementary school building in the heart of an eclectic, artistic, urban neighborhood. It looks a little shabby on the outside, but, on the inside, students are learning about their world through a special-focus international studies program. Test scores are not great but have shown improvements in recent years.

Despite the fact that it sits in the midst of a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood, the school’s student body is made up almost entirely of low-income minorities. One of those white, middle-class moms wonders why and goes inside to check it out. She finds a principal who has already started making positive changes and is looking for the surrounding community to invest its resources – and its kids – in her school.

This scenario may sound very familiar, especially if you just read Mandy Grisham’s article about her experiences with Peabody Elementary. But, in fact, this is a description of The Nettlehorst School in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood – the school featured in How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance by Jacqueline Edelberg (the mom) and Susan Kurland (the principal).

However, Mandy is no copycat. This book came to her, and consequently to me and other neighborhood moms, only recently. We were shocked to discover the parallels to our own story of wanting to see our neighborhood school become not only the kind of place where we want to send our own kids but the crown jewel of our beloved community.

In many ways Peabody was already so much further along when we started considering it than Nettlehorst was the day that Chicago mom first stepped through its doors. Unlike Nettlehorst, whose population consisted largely of students bussed in from other over-crowded schools, Peabody is already a school of choice for many Memphis families. Half of its students choose to transfer in, seeking the small-school atmosphere, the stable team of experienced teachers, and the incredible array of extra-curricular activities that Peabody has offered for years.

And yet, one look at the playground during recess will tell you that the residents of Cooper-Young are overwhelmingly choosing to educate their children elsewhere. There are certainly valid reasons for that decision – one that I know is intensely personal for each family. Nevertheless, for many, Peabody was never even a consideration and I believe it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe that Peabody Elementary has the potential to be a school of choice not just for the rest of the city but for the families who could actually walk their children there.

Those of us in the neighborhood who have decided to send our kindergarteners there this year recognize that we are new to this and probably a little naive. We’ve not yet had our first run-in with Memphis City Schools’ red tape. Our 5-year-old has not yet asked us why most of his classmates do not look like him. We know the road will not always be smooth. It’s possible we’ll have to eat our words.

But, as Mandy said, we are hopeful. We’re hopeful that our kids will be able to get an excellent, free education in a setting that echoes the diversity of the city we live in and love. We’re hopeful that, just as Nettlehorst has since become, Peabody will become one of the best schools in the city.

We believe that Peabody has something going for it that no other school in Memphis can boast — it is at the center of a neighborhood that values community above almost anything else. Even if your kid doesn’t go to Peabody, you want to see it succeed, just because you value it as part of our community.

There are many residents and business owners who have already shown their support of Peabody over the years through their donations of money, goods, and services. They know, like we do, that a strong neighborhood school benefits, not only the students that attend it, but everyone else in the area as well in the form of higher property values, increased support of local businesses, and generally a more positive neighborhood atmosphere.

So, we thank our neighbors for what they have already done for the little elementary school on Young Avenue. We especially thank the neighborhood parents, few and far between though they may be, who have gone before us and have assured us that their kids are indeed thriving there. However, if Peabody Elementary is truly to become Cooper-Young’s school of choice — one realtors will name as a selling point on their listings — we’re going to need even more help, and we’re going to be asking for yours, so get ready.

Ginger Spickler is a Nelson Avenue resident, a CYCA board member, and the mother of Walt – 
a member of the 2010 kindergarten class of Peabody Elementary.

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