Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell
Memphis City Schools (MCS) — which in essence has become Shelby County Schools (SCS) — have had quite a ride over the past few decades. Just the other day, I was trying to add up how many superintendents and interim superintendents I had served under during my tenure. Apparently over the last 25 years, I have worked for seven or eight different superintendents each having their own approaches and philosophies.
What I have noticed is that with each successive administration, new programs are added which have led to a significant amount of mission creep. Mission creep is defined as an organization that has a tendency to unintentionally take on an ever wider scope of responsibilities that go beyond the original objectives. The usual connotation for the phrase “mission creep” is negative in that, as the creep continues, increasingly ambitious endeavors are attempted until the original purpose is lost and/or catastrophic failure occurs.
Educating our nation’s youth is a tricky business. It requires a singular focus on the goal of successfully engaging in activities that directly result in the education of a child to be an academically and socially adept member of our society, imbued with the prerequisite abilities and skills to meet the ever changing demands of today’s reality. Focus is the key, or, otherwise, we find ourselves chasing tangents that divert and obscure our primary mission of educating children. As an educator, parent, and concerned citizen vested in the SCS system on many levels, I feel it is my duty to pay close attention to what our school system is doing to make sure we remain singularly focused on our primary mission.
Unfortunately, I believe we have lost this singular focus and mission creep has set in. For example, in the area of comprehensive health care, SCS now has Regional Health Clinics for students and faculty. The website proclaims that the clinics can conduct basic physicals, urine tests, nutrition counseling, and a host of other minor treatments and procedures. Is this really the job of Shelby County Schools? Are not other governmental and nonprofit agencies tasked with providing every family access to basic medical care? Isn’t that the primary mission of Affordable Care Act, Shelby County Health Clinics, and the Church Health Center. Beyond this, I was recently informed that, thanks to the new SCS Fitness Room, I can enjoy 15 weeks of trainer guided workouts. Isn’t this the business of the YMCA, Kroc Center, and other local gyms? While I am sure that the best intentions of SCS are the health of students and faculty, I ask is this our primary mission?
To go even further, I would suggest sports are an unnecessary expense especially at the middle school level. These programs cost SCS tens of millions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on academic programs that have a proven record of academic achievement such as foreign language classes for elementary students. In my opinion, if parents want their children to be involved in sports, many paths are already available such as church leagues, organizations such as Greenfield Arena, or a host of other competitive leagues for every sport. While a case can be made for how high school sports enable some students to earn college scholarships, I believe that at the middle or elementary level this is mission creep.
Another area where I see mission creep is in SCS Nutrition Services. This year, SCS mandated that every student will have access to free breakfasts, lunches and even dinners. Previously, free or reduced price meals had only been offered to families in economic distress. Today, every child no matter their family’s income level can receive free meals. On the surface this program appears admirable, however, as I have seen it play-out in reality, it is much less so. Every day, I witness unbelievable waste. Students who bring their lunch often collect a tray full of food just to get the freezer pop, chips, or chocolate milk while discarding the rest. Who can blame them? As for mission creep, on my last check the Federal Government provides the needy with numerous programs including WIC and SNAP (food stamps) to ensure economically challenged parents can feed their children. So, why has SCS decided to involve itself in this duplicitous endeavor? To generate headlines? You be the judge. Could not Memphis’ tax payers’ dollars but spent more wisely?
As a stakeholder, I am constantly amazed at how far SCS has drifted from its core mission of educating children. In the few cases I mentioned here, SCS has assumed the role of health care provider, local gym, sports program director, and soup kitchen. As for mission creep, it is my observation that these are only the tip of the iceberg. I suggest that Shelby County Schools take a step back and review all of these tangents, reflect, and then ask: What is the primary mission of our school system?
Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell is a freelance writer and National Board Certified Teacher with 30 years of educational experience. If you have any questions or comments, please contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org