Update, June 25, 2019: The school board approved this request for University Middle to use space in East High School for its first year.
In a last-ditch effort to find a building for its new middle school before August, the University of Memphis wants to share a building with Shelby County Schools.
If approved by the school board, co-locating University Middle for its first year inside of East High School would be a rare collaboration between the district and a school it doesn’t directly operate.
University officials said the location change would not disqualify some currently enrolled University Middle students from attending this fall, which was a concern because the school’s contract requires one third of its students to reside within two miles of the school. That condition was added to promote a more diverse student body than the university’s longtime elementary school, which has the smallest share of students from poor families and largest share of white students in the district.
The university has been scrambling to find another building for its middle school since March, in part because leaders of the Catholic church from which the university planned to lease said any programs or instruction could not conflict with the church’s religious beliefs.
As a school funded by public dollars barred from endorsing religious teaching, such restrictions were “not even remotely on the table for us to discuss,” Sally Parish, the university’s associate vice president for educational initiatives, told the Memphis Business Journal.
During the school board’s committee meeting Tuesday, Parish said “moving away from our original location has thrown us for quite a loop.”
“We would be incredibly grateful for an opportunity to put our middle school [at East High School] for one year while we build out and identify a space on or adjacent to campus for the following year,” she told board members.
In an email to parents Wednesday, Parish said the university had originally planned to share a final decision with parents if the school board approved the location change.
“I can assure you that we will still have a very successful school launch this fall, and that your child’s enrollment is not in jeopardy in any way,” the email read.
School board members did not react to the university’s proposal during the committee meeting, but some said afterward that they would be in favor.
“They’ve exhausted all their other options… I’m OK with it for one year,” said board member Althea Greene.
“My concern is [if] they separate these kids from the high school,” said board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman. “If it has to be done, let it be completely separate.”
The University of Memphis middle school is a “contract” school, which is different from the publicly funded but privately managed charter schools in the district. Contract schools have more flexibility in enrollment, which allows the university to reserve a third of the seats for children of university faculty and staff. It is also a teaching lab school where aspiring teachers at the university will work alongside certified teachers.
Shelby County Schools rarely shares space with other school operators, which the district often sees as competitors. Last year, the district accepted an emergency offer from a state-run school to share space at Kirby Middle School as the district cleared the high school of rats. Charter schools more often share space with each other in district-owned buildings, but students in district-run schools are rarely enrolled in the same building. The state-run Achievement School District used to share space with district schools as the state gradually took over a school, but that practice ended in 2014.
University of Memphis’ president David Rudd reached out to Superintendent Joris Ray on Friday evening with the idea of co-locating at East High School, said John Barker, the district’s chief of staff. Other attempts to secure a space included St. Luke’s United Methodist Church a half mile away from the original location, St. Ann Catholic Church, and using portable classrooms on the university’s campus, he said.
The school board is expected to discuss the proposal at its work session Tuesday and vote the following week.