The application process to get into Memphis’ most popular schools will move completely online in January, but with the same inequities.

That’s a problem for school board members.

Administrators have been gathering parent feedback for months about the optional program in Shelby County Schools. They presented their findings Tuesday to school board members.

Bottom line: Parents who weighed in like the application system that’s now in place and, for now, the plan is to stay the course as the process moves online. The plan is awaiting final approval from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

In recent years, the district has used a hybrid approach in which it fills 80 percent of slots on a first-come, first-serve basis. The other 20 percent are decided through a lottery.

But that first-come, first-serve approach created a monster in the form of “tent city,” a days-long campout every January on the lawn of the district’s central office, preventing parents with inflexible schedules from signing their kids up.

Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding their spot at “tent city.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Micaela Watts

This January, for the first time, the district won’t take paper applications, effectively ending “tent city.” But moving the first-come, first-serve application completely online isn’t solving the equity concern either because of the Digital Divide, the gap in Internet access for low-income families.

“We’re still going to have equity challenges,” said board member Kevin Woods.

About 60 percent of the district’s students come from low-income families, in which many parents work more than one job and without flexibility to accommodate the time-sensitive application, or the resources to go online.

The district is attempting to mitigate those challenges. Assistant Superintendent Joris Ray said computers will be accessible to parents at every school, as well as the district’s parent welcome center, and its central office. The application also can be completed on smartphones.

The city’s optional schools were created in the 1970s to attract and retain high-achieving students and stem white flight following efforts to desegregate Memphis schools. The program now serves about 12,000 students in 46 schools, according to its director, Linda Sklar.

Here’s the optional school that has Memphis parents camping out in January

Shelby County Schools gathered parent feedback about the program’s application process during informational meetings this fall attended by about 500 parents and through online surveys submitted by about 800 people. Options included moving completely to a first-come, first-serve system, moving completely to a lottery, or keeping the current hybrid system, with a possible change in proportions.

About 40 percent of those surveyed favored the all first-come, first-serve system, which Sklar said was surprising. It was unclear how many of those responses were from parents who already have students enrolled in an optional school. About 30 percent called for a hybrid.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said the equity concerns should trump parent responses.

“If you go to White Station, Maxine Smith, of course they want the line, because they’re the ones who have benefitted from the line,” she said. “Let’s be honest around that. That’s not equity.”