I had the privilege of visiting MLK College Prep in Memphis, TN last week.
The school’s founder (and CEO of Frayser Community Schools), Bobby White, attended the high school when it was formerly Frayser High School and has deep roots in the community. His best friend owns an appliance business right near the school. His sister has a salon in the neighborhood, too. And he had been a principal at Westside Middle School in the community and made great strides during his time there. So when Frayser became part of the state-run Achievement School District, and White proposed to change the name of Frayser to MLK College Prep (because there was no high school named after Dr. King in the city where King died) to shift the community's and students' expectations, it was accepted.
And that name change made a difference to parents who were scared to send their children to Frayser.
I heard a grandmother say to White and Principal Kimberly Clark, "I was so scared when my grandchildren were going to high school. I cried. I just thank God for you all for making the change you did here. As a grandparent trying to get my grandchildren to go to college, I just love it."
Consistency and focusing on the positive are hallmarks of MLK College Prep. For example, instead of being "fight-free," which is the language in the district, they focus on “safe” days and have developed incentives based on reaching consecutive days of safety. They have adopted the acronym DRIVE (Discipline, Responsibility, Integrity, Vision, and Effort) and have students and staff recite a daily commitment to DRIVE.
“Our actions embody, every day, that we believe all students can learn at a high level."
White told me, "The foundation of it all is the expectations of the adults. Around America, we have to be very clear what our expectation was, is, and needs to be. Schools used to be about educating the right white males and controlling the rest. To get to a different level today, it starts with the adults' expectations."
“Our actions embody, every day, that we believe all students can learn at a high level. The rules - be on time, follow the dress code, respect yourselves and others, and give 100% effort - follow that focus, and students take that in.”
MLK College Prep School is in its second year of turnaround. The culture has transformed from being chaotic to peaceful and orderly, course offerings have expanded to include band and Spanish, and student performance has improved significantly. The goal for next year is to add more math supports and AP classes.
The same grandmother added, “My grandchildren are twins. They come from a family with no man. The band teacher here, Mr. Lewis, he is such a great father figure. He had the kids share about their home lives and households. He made such a bond with the kids.
They are happy to go to school in the morning. They are ready to go.”