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Commentary: Why are the billionaires missing in Soulsville?

Mike Szymanski | November 25, 2015

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The Soulsville neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn. has the unpleasant distinction of being the 12th most dangerous in the country. Local residents have a one-in-nine chance of becoming a crime victim there within a year. The Soulsville Charter School is located on College Street, and the joke is that the street name is as close as most of the locals will get to “College.” The ZIP code, 38106, is among the poorest in the nation.

“This is not just one of the poorest ZIP codes in Memphis, or in Tennessee, but one of the poorest in the whole country,” says Calvin Stovall, the CEO of the Soulsvillle Foundation which runs the Stax Museum, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School — all right next to each other near downtown Memphis. “I like to see us as a little flower blossoming amongst all the concrete.”

I recently visited Soulsville  as a member of the board of the non-profit California Institute of Contemporary Arts, which presented a grant to the Stax Music Academy this month to help it attract more students into its program.

For all the ravages of the charter wars in LA, where I cover LA Unified as a reporter, I was struck by the utter absence of such a struggle in Memphis, where public schools and charter schools co-exist but don’t try to steal students away from each other.

In a world where billionaires are throwing around money to help create education models in underprivileged neighborhoods, the 640 students at Soulsville Charter seem to be forgotten — or for some reason, ignored — by charter groups. The school has a proven track record of academic success, winning multiple awards in just four years of existence, named one of the best schools in the state, getting 100 percent college acceptance of graduates, and their 207 graduates have been offered more than $30 million in scholarships.

But outside help or even interest from an education reform group is non-existent. 


Students from the Stax Music Academy

“We would love to have the Broad foundation come to fund our charter school,” laughs Stovall. “We will welcome them with open arms.”

The Broad Foundation offers a prize for Urban Education, but for the past 12 years it eluded the Soulsville Charter ZIP code and the state of Tennessee, altogether. It’s not just Broad; many of the education reform groups seem more interested in school systems that may not want them or those in higher-profile parts of the country.

NaShante Brown, the executive director of Soulsville Charter, says the school gets little help from the big companies such as Federal Express based in Memphis. There simply is too much competition for a lot of good charitable causes in the region.

The school doesn’t charge students to enroll, just like in Los Angeles, and it has a 200-family waiting list. Yet, it costs Soulsville Charter $9,500 to educate each student per year, and  it only gets $7,500 per student in public funds. The rest comes from donors, including the thriving music museum next door.

“Memphis kids need a lot of support,” says Brown, whose school is 99 percent black and 1 percent Latino — the one white family moved away recently. “We have a commitment from the families and the students to do their best and be involved.”

A recent tour of the school revealed an immaculate campus quite different from the graffiti-laden surroundings in the neighborhood. The students were all neatly dressed, and the lockers have no locks because all students are on the honor system.

Many of the students come from traumatic family situations. They’ve dealt with drug and alcohol issues at very young ages. The school becomes a cocoon for them from the difficulties of their real world. Children want to come to school.


Calvin Stovall, CEO of Soulsville

“We are about building character and culture,” Brown explains.

About 120 students come after school from all over the city to the Stax Music Academy, which teaches them about all kinds of music. They sing, play instruments, write music and study the history of Memphis blues, jazz, gospel and Stax recording, which includes Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and other famous musicians. The students perform for the community many times a year, and their successes are well-known locally. But, not as much nationally.

It’s really not hard to find a school that is doing amazing things with proven track records of success in every part of the country. But it strikes me as odd, and maybe even a little sad, that so many reform groups spend their time and resources where they’re not so much wanted while other communities would welcome any help they might get.

I’m sure that if LA Unified succeeds in keeping the Broads of the world out, schools like Soulsville would be first in line to welcome them in.

Mike Szymanski is on the board of the non-profit California Institute of Contemporary Arts that presented a grant to the Stax Music Academy this month.

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