Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Making the Grade in Memphis

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Making the Grade in Memphis

Article excerpt

In early July, Shirley McKay sat in the principal's office at St. John's Elementary School, six miles from Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. She was there to discuss her three grandchildren, whom she struggles to raise alone, and she smiled broadly when she described her grandson's aspiration to become a lawyer. As a teenager, McKay, who is Black, had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his assassination 40 years ago; and now, with the first African American president who started his career as a lawyer, everything seemed possible. At St. John's, hope is more tangible than distant history or even a living symbol. The school offers more than feel-good nostrums to the mostly non-Catholic African American children who come from some of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country: St. John's offers children a real opportunity to finish high school and earn college acceptance. This is an opportunity the vast majority of disadvantaged minority students here in racially divided Memphis do not get (Swanson, 2004, 2009). (2)

McKay's grandson, Jason, a seventh grader in the fall, and two granddaughters, Janarria, soon a fourth grader, and Jamya, a third-grader-to-be, used to live full-time with their mother, Latanya Williams, and two other single mothers and all their children. "There was almost no adult supervision and a dozen kids," McKay later said. "Janarria hunted through the house for what her sister needed and still takes care of her."

Throughout pre-school and kindergarten, Janarria acted out in class, until the father, McKay's son, who is also named Jason, won custody. She perceived her classmates as rivals competing for scarce resources and as potential bullies who might pick on Jamya, even though she is two inches taller than her elder sister. Janarria's exuberance turned to aggression toward peers and defiance toward teachers.

McKay sat often with Teddi Niedzwiedz, who is in her sixth year as St. John's principal and twentieth as an educator, strategizing how to "smooth the girls' rough edges," Niedzwiedz later said. Jamya tended to get into trouble too, but less so. St. John's teachers would call McKay whenever behavior became troublesome, and the calm interaction of school and grandparent tempered the youngsters. They were then living with their father, who had turned his life around, and found full-time employment at a local warehouse.

But then 3 years ago, Jason Sr. was shot to death in his driveway during his lunch break by a masked gunman, who has yet to be apprehended. Williams, who has two other children from another man who had also been murdered, "was too overwhelmed," said McKay. "And without an education, she can't get a decent job." So McKay successfully sought custody and decided to keep her grandchildren in Catholic school. Janarria took the death of her father badly. She regressed into antisocial behavior, as did her siblings. In response, the children were counseled on conflict resolution and processing tragedy emotionally.

Even Jason lashed out at a classmate, angry at his father's loss, not only at home but at school. His father coached the basketball team, and Jason, although shorter and slighter than teammates, was the star player. Niedzwiedz talked with Jason after the fight saying, "St. John's is a special place where we don't accept hostility." The principal could have expelled the boy but has never exercised that option. Instead, she makes consequences clear then lets her cheery Southern drawl and personal warmth nudge students toward compliance.

"Now Jason's the class peacemaker," said Niedzwiedz. A week after Obama's victory Janarria made the honor roll for the first time with straight As, equaled by only 15 of St. John's 190 students.

Although McKay is eligible to retire early, she continues working to make full salary and additional income from overtime, which she needs to pay her family's portion of tuition, based on a sliding scale. …

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