District, university partner on middle school specializing in project-based learning
The Shelby County Board of Education in Tennessee approved a five-year contract with the University of Memphis for operation of the University Middle School, a new school scheduled to open this fall that will serve 270 students in grades 6-8 by 2021. University Middle will be a teaching lab for project-based learning for the university, Chalkbeat reports, and an elementary school operated by the university will act as a primary feeder for the school.
Under the contract agreement, the University of Memphis is responsible for construction and maintenance costs, staffing and salaries, and student transportation. The school district will provide cafeteria and special education services including nurses and speech and physical therapists.
Contract schools, such as this one, have more say in how they choose students than charter schools do, and the university said one-third of University Middle's students would be children of faculty and staff. However, the school board was concerned about the school's potential racial makeup, so the university dropped the academic requirement for attendance, with students now eligible for admission based on behavior and attendance records — though a lottery may be needed to determine final invitations.
The partnership between Shelby County Schools and the University of Memphis demonstrates the significance of collaboration between universities and public schools. Some private universities, like Bob Jones University and Columbia University, have offered K-12 programs for decades, creating a natural feeder pattern into the university and providing fertile ground for education majors to observe or train in classrooms. And just recently, the Indiana state legislature gave control of the Muncie Community Schools district to Ball State University after concerns over financial dealings in the district.
However, such relationships are largely untested between public universities and public schools. At the University of Memphis, its first partnership with Shelby County Schools was Campus School, an elementary school that has been open since 1961 and is among the highest-performing schools in the state. Though some critics worry the school is more segregated than most in that area, a concern that prompted extra attention to the issue in the establishment of the University Middle School contract, the elementary school has made a positive impact, serving as a laboratory for education majors providing leading-edge teaching techniques for children.
Now University Middle School will act as a laboratory for teaching prospective teachers how to incorporate project-based learning into curriculum. And, if the model is successful, student teachers should come away with a stronger practical knowledge of how to apply project-based learning. Ultimately, this could benefit other schools in the district and beyond as new teachers come to their classrooms armed with new techniques.