Regular EMM readers know that my older son attended Grahamwood Elementary as part of their Optional Program. At the advice of a neighbor who knew we wanted to try public school (her sons attend private school), I put him on the waiting list in May when I visited Memphis for our home inspection. We got a call from the Principal the first week of June, as I was unpacking boxes. He took the test and was accepted into the program.
We never stood in line.
My younger son also went to Grahamwood for speech therapy for two years, twice a week, and was accepted to start Kindergarten (via online General Transfer) for the 2014-15 school year. Living in the White Station Middle School zone, we didn’t have to camp out for our son to attend their Optional program (as long as your grades and test scores are good you’re in if you live in the school zone).
Not everyone camps out or stands in line to attend WSMS Optional.
I’m emphasizing that so hopefully parents understand that this annual camp out isn’t the only option. For some parents it’s their best option, and they are very willing to go through the pain and suffering to avoid a poorly performing school or the expense of private school.
Optional applications for the 2015-16 school year were handed out on Monday, January 26th 2015. According to SCS, there were 90 available spaces (1st grade) at Grahamwood. As I’ve said here many times, getting into a good public elementary school is doable in the East Memphis area. They are several good options – it’s middle school that’s been an issue. Thanks to the efforts of some awesome people (shout out to my friend Mandy Grisham) we gained another great middle school option during the 2014-15 school year – the 100% Optional Maxine Smith STEAM Academy run by SCS in conjunction with Christian Brothers University. I’ve spoken to many area parents who are very happy with this school, and today you’ll find as many parents in line for STEAM as you will for White Station Middle (if not more).
So for the 2015 campout, instead of parents camping out to compete for 100 spots at White Station Middle School, a lot of them were trying for one of the 100 spots at Maxine Smith. Progress we should celebrate!
In 2015 one Grahamwood parent, Seth Agranov, took a bunch of pictures and captured his experience on his Best Memphis Burger Twitter account, so I figured sharing his experience with all of you would be helpful and informative.
So with no further explanation, here is
by Seth Agranov
I didn’t really camp out to get my son into Grahamwood in 2010. I believe I showed up on Sunday afternoon, the day before. I had a soccer chair and a comforter and remember some very cold and miserable hours. I think I was up around 120 in line with most people in front of me being for WSMS.
Prior to the line-up this year, a group of approx 10 out-of-district Grahamwood (GES) parents got together to share information we knew about the schools, the line-up process and to strategize about scoping out when the line started and when we should plan to get in it. We had a phone tree setup with everyone’s email and phone numbers. We were convinced we wouldn’t need to get into any line until Friday and didn’t want to do anything to feed the frenzy or encourage lining up any earlier than necessary. HA! The best laid plans…
With my working in Mid-town I started doing 2-3 drive-bys a day beginning Monday of last week. I wasn’t the only one though. Later I found out that groups of Campus School parents were doing the same thing. We were all emailing back and forth and seemed to be in good shape for the first couple of days. Through Tuesday, there was nothing happening at the Board of Ed building.
And So It Begins
Then Wednesday morning, my wife stopped by on her way to work at 5:00 am and emailed that there was no line or any sign of tents yet. By the time I dropped the boys at GES at 8 am, word from another parent came in that one tent had been pitched. The woman was supposedly a grandmother of a potential WSMS student who was thrown off the property the day before by Linda Sklar (Optional Schools & Advanced Academics. Director) and SCS security. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Linda Sklar was nothing but wonderful and supportive of us every day we were out there. Anyway, I stopped by on the way to my office about 8:15 and by then, there were now 6 people in line.
It became very obvious that my group was only one of many bird-dogging the line. I emailed everyone on my list and let them know it had begun. Once a number of tents were present we agreed that no one would be kicked off the property. We still had people in our group reluctant to feed the frenzy. I, however, went to my office to quickly tie up any loose ends and make my move. Within a few minutes, a friend with twin daughters called and said she had the number 10 & 11 spots and I needed to get there and get in line. My original plan was to go on Thursday morning after I dropped my son off at STEAM for his shadow appointment. I had everything I needed laid out at home on my dining room table and nothing in my truck on Wednesday.
I officially joined the line on Wed, 1/21 at 9:30 am. I was number 34 in line. From the time I drove by and talked to the people #1-6 in line at 8:15 to when I entered at 9:30 the line grew from 6 to 34 and by noon was pushing 50. Everyone in the early line was for one of two schools: White Station Middle School (WSMS) or Maxine Smith STEAM Academy. If I had to guess, I’d say it was 2/3 for WSMS and 1/3 for STEAM.
The rules you saw posted to a tree were sketched out by a gentleman that I spent many hours talking to. They were unofficial though, meaning, the people who were number 1 in line felt like tradition dictated that they were to start and hold onto the list at all times. Initially, they wanted everyone to be present or have someone present in their place at ALL TIMES and do a roll call every two hours. With our small numbers present at 10:00am Wed. (the first official roll call), we quickly agreed that everyone did not need to be present at all times, but they did need to be there for each and every roll call or forfeit their number on the list.
As soon as that was decided, I made a bee line home to get all my supplies and be back for the noon roll call. By noon, there were more people in line. At first everyone was very busy pitching tents on the sidewalk, trying for the most part to stay off SCS grounds. We did our roll call and went right back to work.
Four-Hour Roll Calls
At the 2:00 pm roll call Wednesday things turned ugly for a couple minutes. The group had grown past 55 or 60 people and some were very frustrated. Rightly so. It is a huge inconvenience to just drop everything and hop into a situation where you’re committing to leave your entire life for 5 days to be present at a roll call every two hours. Frustration and tempers ran high. Unanimously, we all agreed that every four hours was much more reasonable. From that point on, roll calls were to occur every day at 6a, 10a, 2p, 6p and 10p. If you slept there, in your tent or your car, that was up to you, just be there for every roll call or have someone present, representing you and you alone there to call your name when they called out your number.
The whole point of written rules were to try and take the burden of maintaining the list off of number 1 in line and to have a group of people willing to volunteer a few hours here and there to check new people in and review the roll call process. We just weren’t comfortable with 1 tent or family running the whole show. We also felt that a group voice would be better at communicating than one person if and when we had to speak to the board or media. As we found out quickly, our biggest problem was that number 1 and his wife had the list and they were set on running roll calls and signing up new people. They were not in favor of any other ideas or suggestions. They continued quoting that when they lined up in prior years, this is how it was done and that tradition dictated the process.
As far as I know, SCS had no part in any of this. They didn’t want us out there and insisted that last year 99.8% of all students qualifying for Optional schools were placed. (They never said it was their school of choice.)
For the most part we settled on acknowledging number 1 as first in line and that they held the list. We just hung tight at every roll call to be ready to handle problems as a group if something came up. We posted the rules to have them up and as a small group decided that if we remained alert and level headed, nothing shady could go down.
I was out there for each and every roll call but one. I had to have a friend fill in for me at one when I dropped my son off for his STEAM shadow. For me, this was a very social time. I made a lot new friends and got to know existing ones much better. I learned a lot about myself and my priorities while I was out there. Number 1 in line kept to themselves the entire time. They weren’t social, they made no effort. They missed our on a tremendous opportunity by holding on to that list like it was a life raft.
Shelby County Schools Involvement
Linda Sklar was visible every single day. She came out multiple times to answer questions and check on our condition. Toward the last few days she was present at several roll calls. She knew that’s when the biggest numbers would be present. She was there, members of her staff stopped by, a board member came out, and we even had a visit from the superintendent. No one supported our line-up or encouraged it. Yet they acknowledged that it was parent driven and that we chose this over a lottery. They recognized that while there are many Optional schools in the system, they don’t all match up on their requirements for admission and programs offered. Linda never gave Number 1 any instructions to form rules, but she did acknowledge him as the list holder and when we did go inside for applications, she publicly thanked him for the job he did. We all did.
Although the school board didn’t want us out there, they took care of us for sure. They gave us WIFI access to their guest network, they put out a half dozen portable bathrooms, allowed us to park in their lots and called MLGW when they smelled gas. Linda Sklar even said that if the weather turned real sour, they’d make a decision and possibly send us home with vouchers corresponding to our list order. (note – this was done in 2014 due to extremely low temperatures)
They did try to send parents in line for Grahamwood and high school spots home, telling them that as long as they qualified there wouldn’t be an issue. For people out of the SCS district, they told them the choice was up to them as they were the bottom of the priority.
Taking Time Off
I spoke to my bosses ahead of time and let them know I’d be taking vacation days. Luckily they allowed me the time off I requested. My wife works full time too, 5:30 am to 2:00 pm. I had a friend cover my spot on Thursday at the 6:00 am roll call so I could take one of my kids to school and the other to his STEAM Shadow appointment. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to have friends like that. The next evening, Thursday night, both boys slept at a friends house who took them to school Friday. We made it work. I didn’t want my wife out on the sidewalk. I gladly spent each night on sight or bunked on a friend’s couch.
You know in this situation, you do what you have to do. Is there a better way? Sure there is! It just is a work in progress. SCS needs more optional school choices. They need more schools like WSMS and STEAM and they need them around the district. It can’t happen overnight, but I really think they’re working on making it a reality.
Don’t forget, a lottery is totally doable. Linda Sklar said if we wanted to go that route, she could send us all home and do it right then and there. The fact is, we don’t want to gamble with our children’s education. We don’t want a lottery. We all support Memphis and Public Education. If we thought that for a minute these new municipal school districts were better, we’d be moving there, but I don’t think they are better. The quality of an optional education is so far above that of what I’ve seen my kids’ friends studying. I don’t know if the answer is just making more optional programs inside of other schools. School within a school seems a little over-kill. I personally like what STEAM has done. It’s 100% optional. It’s like a private school at a public school price. I pray we are accepted there this coming fall.
On several occasions this past week, I commented on how it felt like we were submerged into a kind of Survivorish reality show. It was a very emotional and draining 5 days. For the most part we behaved like adults and held each other up. I was so proud and impressed. I really hope this is the level of involvement we all show as parents at our kids’ new schools.
A few tips:
- If you’re planning to sleep in a tent, bring a couple of tarps. One tarp should go underneath the tent. It will help keep you dry and warmer during the night. I’d recommend a second tarp you can use to complete cover your tent and first tarp with in the event it rains.
- Another essential would be warm and waterproof boots and hand warmers. No real explanation needed. Both are clutch.
- I was pretty successful with my layering of clothing. My outer most layer was always a ski shell or heavy wind breaker. It’s very windy on Avery Ave. You’ll need to block the wind, especially when night time comes and the temperature drops.
- Speaking of Wind. The best thing we did was put up a 10 x 10 easy up and wall it off with tarps secured with lots of zip-ties. We staked the sides down and put a propane heater and several folding chairs inside. It made a great shelter and kept us very warm throughout the day and evening.
- I’d also suggest bringing something to do like a book or magazines to read, knitting, an iPod or something to take your mind off the schools. One of the most mentally exhausting parts to the entire experience was having the same conversation over and over with different groups of people about the schools, the solutions and alternatives to having to sleep out. At times the reviewing of the list numbers and counting the numbers of places available at specific schools felt like we were strategizing in a game of Survivor. It got old very fast. A few times I put in ear buds just to avoid these conversations.
Overall, everyone was extremely cooperative and helped each other. There was a huge feeling of community and caring. Anything you needed, someone had and was willing to give. All throughout the weekend we joked that it takes a village. It really does. In fact, we left SCS on Monday morning believing it takes a village to educate a child.
Want to share your experience camping out for an Optional program? Please do so via a comment.