Terence Patterson is the president and CEO of Memphis Education Fund. (Courtesy photo)

by Terence Patterson —

We’ve finally all settled into the “back to school” routine – set bedtime schedules, flexed new backpacks, made new friends and reunited with old ones. This school year, while things feel different coming through the COVID-19 pandemic, some stark realities remain the same.

Our public school system serves over 110,000 students, many of whom are Black and brown. This year’s academic data shows that only 1 in 10 of those students are on grade level in math and reading. Children in Memphis are facing real challenges – depression, lack of socialization and childhood traumas – that have been made worse by the pandemic.

There’s no way to sugar coat these realities. We, as a community, must address them head on with a clear pathway forward to improve emotional wellness, academic outcomes and systemic infrastructure. It’s going to take a village. 

It’s a heavy lift, but Memphis and Shelby County can do this, together. This is a community challenge that requires coordinated support and leveraged resources to lift up the whole child. 

First, let’s continue to align community partners to support students from 3 p.m. (after school) to 8 a.m. (the start of each school day). As I’ve mentioned, the public school system and its authorized charter schools cannot be wholly responsible for the outcomes of students, as they are only in their care for eight hours of the day. 

Community partners from health care to after school care to local food resources to community leaders to local education champions must align to support the whole child while they are inside and outside of the school building. 

Second, teaching and learning IS the most important investment we can make in our students’ futures. Our teachers, principals and tutors are our most important assets. Let’s seek data-driven strategies that support and incentivize them to optimize student performance.

And, yes, the ABCs and 123s are important, but equally important are the social and emotional learning that teachers and school leaders can impart to our students. It’s ensuring that the adults have a cultural competency that appreciates the students’ lived experiences and teaches them with empathy in the context of true social justice and fairness.

Now, thanks to approximately $800 million in federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) funding, we have the resources to move forward with systemic improvements. And the changes can be bigger than just fixing HVACs, roofs and windows. They can be game-changing investments in TALENT, technology, 21st century curriculum and long-term sustainability plans that will set our students up for success in a global economy. 

Simply put, let’s set our goals high. Let’s agree on a comprehensive but clear pathway to reach those goals on a defined timeline. Let’s hold the entire community accountable for the outcomes. 

And, for the love of our children, let’s stop politicizing issues related to the education of our children.

(The Memphis Education Fund is hosting its Eradicating the Odds Virtual Conference on September 15-16. To register and learn more, visit www.memphiseducationfund.org.)