Academics, Culture Lead Tennessee Mom to Private School

Published April 23, 2014

Marilyn Johnson couldn’t afford to put her son, Marshall, in a private school. She also said she couldn’t afford not to.

“I had researched the inner-city school system, and I knew they wouldn’t be a fit for my son,” Johnson said. “That’s when MOST came in.”

Johnson, who lives in Shelby County, Tennessee, found her opportunity through the Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST), funded by private philanthropists.

Tennessee has considered replicating the program at the state level.

Try Again Another Day
The state Senate recently passed a bill offering 5,000 low-income students in the state’s lowest-performing schools scholarships allowing them to attend a private school of their choice. The bill stalled in the House, so Tennesseans will likely have to wait until next year to see whether lawmakers will pass the bill again.

“We feel like it’s a little bit small, but it’s a step towards helping more kids, and it’s hard to argue when you’re taking the poorest kids going to the poorest schools and helping them get a better education,” said Mandy Rough, MOST’s executive director.

Rough said she sees MOST as a way to help parents who truly want what’s best for their children. MOST scholarships are available to Shelby County students in low-income families. At approximately $2,000, the scholarships often don’t cover the total tuition, so families foot part of the bill. Many qualify, however, for need-based financial aid directly from their private schools. Families with outstanding tuition debt lose their eligibility.

This school year, 815 children in 673 families applied for MOST scholarships, but funding levels allowed only 515 children to receive them, Rough said.

“The families that come to MOST looking for scholarships are families that are absolutely concerned about education. They come to us saying, ‘I want to find the right school for my kid,'” she said.

Checking for Fit
MOST encourages families to check out their neighborhood public schools first—”Don’t assume that if your neighbor doesn’t like it, it won’t be good for your child,” Rough said—and helps them find options within the public system, such as open enrollment and charter schools.

For some families, a private school is the best fit, and MOST helps provide that opportunity. Parents who believe they’ve had a choice in their child’s education are typically more involved and committed, Rough said.

Johnson said the school’s mission dovetailed with her vision for her son. Students aren’t allowed to cheat or steal, and they attend chapel services a few times a week. This summer, he’ll attend a leadership program at Harvard University.

Johnson said teachers and administrators are never too busy to keep her updated on Marshall’s progress.

“It’s just like we’re a family, and it’s always been like that, that personal touch. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It’s really true at St. George’s,” she said.

No Bullying Allowed
Putting Marshall in a college prep school reduced his chances of being bullied for the high academic expectations Johnson had for him, she said. His public school peers meet him at their church, and they look up to him. A ninth-grader, Marshall is taking some of the same classes as 11th- and 12th-graders.

The school’s culture impressed Johnson. She hears Marshall and his friends talking positively about school, dressing respectfully, and enjoying “good, plain, clean fun.”

“You see a lot of bad things on TV. He’ll be 16 soon. At that age, a lot of young men have just given up hope, but he has hope for tomorrow. There’s a future for him,” she said. “I just cry because I am so grateful for St. George’s and MOST. I am so grateful.”

Johnson said, for her son, the sacrifice is worth it.

“People say, ‘How could you afford to send him to your private school?’ I said, ‘How can you afford not to? My child is my investment,'” she said.

Article is reprinted with permission. Image by Jeff Meyer.