If the story of Dr. Bobby White were a recipe, the basic ingredients – by his own self-assessment – would be pride, courage and love for community.
Such an assessment is timely in that White is the founder and CEO of Frayser Community Schools (FCS), a local neighborhood charter school group that is celebrating its first five years with a May 23 “Trailblazers in Education & Community” event. Six people who have been instrumental to FCS’ growth and successful in their own industries will be honored.
Referencing the three basic ingredients he identified, White said they required “a long bake inside of a cooking bag or crock-pot.”
“It has taken a long time for all of those things (pride, courage and love for community) to meld together for things to be just right for me to be able to have the skill set and now be able to lead the way that I am leading.”
White has led FCS’ growth from one to three “family-centered” schools in five years. A native Memphian, he graduated from the high school that FCS now operates, the former Frayser High School. Additionally, he once served as principal of the newest school in the FCS portfolio, Westside Middle School. The organization also operates Humes Middle School.
“They are zone-enrolled charter schools, not a traditional charter where there is an application. If you were zoned to the old Frayser High School, you are still attending MLK College Prep. If you were zoned to Humes, you are still attending Humes. We don’t have an application process. We are the neighborhood school.”
For White, Frayser has long been his neighborhood. He grew up there, recalling naysayers telling his parents not to send him to the old Frayser High School.
“The shift in 1984 was rolling…from this being a white, working class neighborhood…as Kimberly Clark, Firestone and those companies closed down. …At the same time, many of the housing projects around our city were being torn down and folks were being dispersed into the affordable, single-family houses that were in Frayser…
“Over a period of time, Frayser went from being a predominantly, working-class, homeownership community to now, 25-30 years later, renters outweigh homeowners, the mobility and transient nature of the population makes it challenging to even have schools that can have sustained quality academic results. For me, that’s the real work.”
Truly educating “black and brown – and in Memphis mostly poor, black children – at a high level” is missionary-level work that White aggressively embraces. He has been in education for 20-plus years.
Former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. introduced a young White to contacts at the Tennessee Charter School Center, a lobbying group for charter schools, where he served briefly as the assistant director.
After graduating from LeMoyne-Owen College (political science and history), the federal government hired him to manage property and he moved to Atlanta, then Charlotte, Louisville and Birmingham within a two-year period.
A single father, White’s daughter was in Memphis with his parents. He decided to move back, starting as a teacher at Cypress Middle School, where he also was appointed the football, basketball and track coach. About eight months later, he was made an administrator.
When Hamilton High School offered a chance to coach on the high school level he agreed to be the football team’s defensive coordinator and the head baseball coach. Three months into that stint, he was named interim assistant principal.
Adjusting his goals, White started the master’s program at Freed-Hardeman University, where he earned an administrator’s license in about 12 months. Next, he was named assistant principal at Vance Middle School, where he learned lessons that he draws upon today.
For example: “In a transformational type of school setting, if you can’t create that family-type of atmosphere, the needle won’t be moved quick enough,” White said, emphasizing the need for “a synergy where everybody is kind of rowing in the same direction and everybody is excited and kids can feel that energy. …”
In 2009, White became the principal at Westside Middle School, serving into 2012. It was a low-performing school that he governed as it transitioned upward academically, but not fast enough to keep it from being taken over for low performance.
Subsequently, he met then Achievement School District (ASD) Supt. Chris Barbic, who asked him to come aboard as ASD regional superintendent and replicate in Memphis the high school level success Barbic showed him that had been achieved in Houston.
He ended up traveling to recruit charter-management organizations. That brief experience quickened his desire to run such an organization. Barbic put him in touch with the Tennessee Charter School Center, where Barbic had worked previously. He became an entrepreneurial fellow and trained to build a charter management organization (CMO).
With his Frayser roots, White jumped at a chance to run Frayser High School as part of a CMO. The changes he wrought including changing the name.
“I thought there was a negativity, a cloud that was over the name and that the people who currently comprised the neighborhood needed something of their own to be able to build their own pride and traditions around.”
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School was the result.
“One of things I’m doing is trying to change the narrative around what does quality look like in a good neighborhood high school,” White said. “High schools are about life. When a child walks off that stage, do I – as the leader of this organization – am I able to say to that principal, “Do you know where all 125 of them are about to go? …
“So that those parents can say, ‘Those folks at that school and their organization …got my child ready for the next phase of their life that affords them the opportunity to be able to manage life while they are figuring out the next step.”
That does not mean watering down what is taught, White said.
“I just want to make sure that the communities that we serve, that we are thinking and respecting the capital they bring and what we know is important to them. …”
That holds true for Humes, which is not in Frayser but does fit into White’s personal philosophy, which is to step up to meet a need when you can. Humes, he said, was in danger of closing, which would have significantly impacted the surrounding neighborhood.
For White and Frayser Community Schools, the path ahead includes refining so that Humes, Westside Middle and MLK College Preparatory High are performing at the preferred academic level.
“We’ve already solidified ourselves as the charter organization in the neighborhoods that the people trust. That provides with grace because they know we are trying to go about the work the right way.
DeAndre Brown, founder/executive director of Lifeline to Success in Frayser, called Frayser Community Schools a vital part of the community.
“We always wanted to have oversight and control of our educational system and they have allowed us to do that in a tangible way. I believe the students are really benefitting from it,” Brown said. “Dealing with the larger school district, the smaller, neighborhood schools sometimes got left out or didn’t have the attention paid that was necessary.”
The presence of FCS over the five-year period has led to doing “things that I don’t think people believed we could do,” Brown said. “Our enrollment has been steady, our students are learning and engaged and the community has benefited.”
Pastor Ricky Floyd, senior pastor of Pursuit of God Transformation Center, said Frayser Community Schools are literally connected to the community.
“What has happened is the relationship that we have been afforded to build has caused what I call ‘common unity in the community’ because we can have the same voice, the same vision and anticipate the same victories,” Floyd said.
“With what they’ve had to work with in this community and the support or lack thereof of the city as a whole, I think they’ve done a great job. …What I’ve tried to do was be an assistant. I’m not an educator but there are things that educators need that I can do to minister to the educators and build relationships with the parents and students.”
White said anybody who knows him knows that he loves what he does.
“I love the people that I am serving. I embody that and I want the people I work with to be the same way.”