The Future of School Will Not Look Like “School.” (It Will Look Like This)
For decades, before it became a blight on the city landscape, the massive Sears building in Memphis was a symbol of what the “Bluff City” might one day become.
Built during the Roaring Twenties, with a vivid art-deco exterior and more than one million square feet of space, the building was a monument to the Golden Era of retail — Amazon, before Amazon. It served as the parent company’s distribution center for the mid-South — a labyrinth of hoppers, runners, chutes and conveyor belts, and a beehive of activity in which trucks were loaded up on one side of the building, and trains on the other. But on weekends, it was the place Memphians would dress up to go shopping amid the din of a thousand footsteps, each floor a living museum of the things that filled the pages of their heavily dog-eared Sears catalogues — the “Dream Book” — in which Americans of all classes and colors imagined new lives and new possibilities.
Its scale and grandeur was a fitting development for a city that was becoming, through early musical pioneers like W.C. Handy, early recording studios like Sun, and early bacchanalian destinations like Beale Street, a cultural capital of the entire country.
And yet, over time, Memphis’s promise of a more desirable future gradually gave way to the weight of its undesirable past.
A century earlier, the Bluff City — so named for the land once known as the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, located on the Mississippi River at the edge of Tennessee’s southwestern tip — had been known as “the Charleston of the West” because of its dependence on cotton and slaves for economic growth. In the decades since, that legacy had extended across generations of Memphians via deeply entrenched citywide systems of race-based inequality.
When the United States Supreme Court tried to address the depth of the harm, in 1954, by ruling that segregated schools anywhere were an unconstitutional affront everywhere, the city of Memphis responded not by integrating, but by expanding east — towards its fleeing white residents, and away from its black ones. The result was a distended municipal footprint of more than three hundred square miles, larger than even New York City’s, yet with a total population more than twelve times smaller.
There were other efforts to course-correct. In 1972, a federal judge ordered citywide busing to help bring about more integrated schools, but that only sparked a second wave of white flight, and a doubling of private school enrollment. And then there was the global tragedy from four years earlier, in 1968, when the city’s mostly-black sanitation workers protested the death of two of their brethren, crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck, and the country’s preeminent civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., came to show his support for their cause.
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” he told them the night before he was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, setting off a chain reaction of nationwide conflagrations. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
How do you provide integrated services to a segregated citizenry?
How do you confront past harms in ways that lead to actual healing?
And how do you set the conditions that can actually shrink the opportunity gaps between a city’s residents, and not widen them?
The short answer, in too many places, is that you can’t: privilege begets privilege. Poverty begets poverty. And the dollars will follow the (white) flight.
At least that‘s what happened in Memphis. So when Sears decided to build a different flagship store, closer to the city’s relocated white center, the regal building at the intersection of Cleveland and Poplar Streets fell into disrepair.
Within ten years, the neighborhood had fallen off the map for most Memphians. And by the end of the twentieth century, the Sears building sagged like a soggy sarcophagus — too big to be imploded, and too blighted to spark anyone’s creative reimagining of what else it might become.
As any Memphian will tell you, this storyline is part of the city’s shared identity. “When things are good, my wife and I don’t talk about it much; they’re just good,” explained Todd Richardson, an art history professor and Memphian since 2008. “But when they’re bad, we talk about it a lot, and how to make things better. That’s like Memphis — we’ve been talking about how bad it is for so many years. We forget to talk about what’s good.”
That began to change in 2009, when Richardson and Christopher Miner, a musician, writer and visual artist, were asked by the derelict building’s new owner to offer their input on how it might be rehabilitated around his primary passions, arts and education.
Richardson, a bespectacled dreamer with no development experience whatsoever, remembered feeling emboldened because of the impossibility of the request. “The building had become such an immovable symbol of what was wrong with Memphis,” he explained. “Because it was so big, no one could ever come up with an idea that could literally or figuratively fill the space. So we started having those ‘wouldn’t it be cool if …’ conversations that led to other things. And what we started to realize is that we didn’t want to look at the building as a space to be filled, but as an opportunity to create a new neighborhood. And if that opportunity was to have a chance at succeeding, then the whole project had to use arts and culture as a catalyst for change.
“The biggest challenge was getting people to see beyond what they saw.”
So Richardson, Miner and their partners organized live concerts and exhibitions, sponsored dance performances, and staged poetry slams. They invited people to make art, wonder out loud, and wander the building’s abandoned hallways taking photographs and video, again and again. And in time, a collective question emerged: What if the Sears building could become a city within the city, one in which the intersecting virtues of arts, education and wellness found equal footing? And what if, at the center of that miniature city, there was that most familiar bedrock of any community’s shared destiny — a public high school?
Much to the city’s, and Richardson’s, surprise, the idea started to take actual shape. Construction teams, intentionally and eclectically recruited so the project would both reflect and enlist Memphis’s many communities, began saw-cutting through five miles of concrete, installing more than thirty miles of sprinkler piping, and repointing more than seven million bricks — enough to stretch all the way from Memphis to New Orleans when laid end-to-end. And students, parents, and educators from across the city began participating in community conversations of what a new school in an old building should actually look like, and be like, and do.
In time, after a total investment of $210 million, the building received the commitment of forty founding tenants — primarily a mixture of arts, education and healthcare non-profits. And in 2017, almost a decade after the first ‘what if’s’ were uttered, it re-opened as Crosstown Concourse, a “vertical urban village” in which 1,500 people would work, 500 would live, and an inaugural class of 150 freshmen would walk, bike, or ride their way to the city’s newest public high school:
Crosstown High. Home of the Explorers.
Ginger Spickler was there for Crosstown Concourse’s opening day, just as she had been there for every step of Crosstown High’s inaugural design. In fact, its arrival owed as much to her as any other Memphian — and its creation was a process that, for Spickler at least, had been years in the making.
Alert, intense, and astute, Spickler started paying close attention to the bevy of public and private school options in her county, nearly 400 in all, when her oldest son was still in diapers. Like many American cities, Memphis was awash in school choices, but what Spickler discovered, as she put it, was that “if you wanted to choose another school than the one you were registered for, you had to know that system. And up to this point in Memphis’s history, that fact has overwhelmingly been to the benefit of the families who are well-informed.”
So Spickler called school principals, visited school websites, and attended school open houses. What she learned confirmed her initial sense that her neighborhood school was the best fit for her family. She also learned how pervasively her city’s unjust past was still shaping present-day conditions for its residents. “There are vast gaps in the educational experience kids in Memphis schools are getting,” she explained, “sometimes even within single schools. One out of every three of our children is living in poverty, and we have a deep legacy, going back to past periods of white flight into either private schools or public ‘optional’ schools in which ‘higher achieving’ — read: more privileged — students receive better teachers, materials and opportunities, while our city’s poorest children and families are all concentrated in the other schools, and in more traditional — read: less engaging and interesting — tracks. It’s like a storm cloud is stuck hovering over our heads and ensuring that the local weather pattern can never change.”
To try and counter the information and opportunity gap, Spickler created Memphis School Guide, an online and in-print compendium of information to help parents navigate their school options. And yet as years passed, and her son and others like him neared middle- and high-school age, Spickler saw the dearth of high-quality options in those higher grades. “My biggest takeaway from all the work was that there was no real diversity in the type of learning happening at the different schools in Memphis. Different schools had different resources and different demographics, for sure, but everyone was basically doing the same old Stand and Deliver model of instruction. People were looking for something different that just didn’t exist in our city.”
Then Spickler heard about what was happening in the old Sears building — and that the developers wanted the space to be anchored by a public high school. So she reached out to other institutions in the city that were doing interesting work with young people, and began organizing meetings at which they could ask kids and families directly what they wanted to see more (and less) of in their ideal school. “Instead of starting with a predetermined vision that we were working towards,” she said, “our process was one of discovery.”
What they discovered was largely intuitive — and yet, largely absent in the city’s public and private schools.
We don’t just want to sit and listen, the students explained. We want to do stuff.
We don’t just want to learn alongside people who look and think like us, they said. We want our classrooms to be as diverse as our city.
And we want the work that we do to matter, now, in the world we all share.
When Richardson heard what Spickler was uncovering, he sensed a perfect match for the kind of culture he hoped would take root in the Concourse. “I had a lot of unconscious assumptions about what a school was supposed to look like,” Richardson confessed. “But the students were painting a picture of a place that was designed more like a basecamp than a container. They weren’t asking us to do the simple math of figuring out how many classrooms you need in order to evenly distribute young people across a fixed number of spaces; they were asking us to design a place that was agile, and emergent, and fluid.”
As more and more community members offered their input, the initial processes of Crosstown High became clear: spatially, a physical design that could make it easy for folks to be collaborative and interdisciplinary; structurally, a flexible school schedule that could foster sustained partnerships with fellow Concourse tenants, whose workplaces could provide rich and real-world learning opportunities for students; culturally, a commitment to recruit a student body that was fully reflective of the city; and pedagogically, an emphasis on mastering higher-order thinking skills via project-based and socially embedded assessments of student learning.
“What are the essentials for a thriving community?” Spickler asked. “How do you repair a city fractured by injustice and inequality? And what does it mean to reimagine education for a changing world? Those became the questions our school would try to answer.”
To get there, the school hired Chris Terrill as its founding executive director. A veteran educator with a salt and pepper goatee, close-cropped hair, and the self-awareness to not always put himself at the center of the work, Terrill knew that for Crosstown High to be successful, he’d need to recruit an inaugural faculty that was willing to rethink everything about teaching and learning.
“There are roughly 31,000 high schools in America,” Terrill told them at the first faculty meeting of the year. “99.5% of those schools are doing things very much the same way. That works for some students — it worked for most of us — and now here we are as teachers.
“But times have changed. Things are different. We’ve asked you to do something that hasn’t been done in Memphis. We don’t know everything — as a matter of fact we know very little about the scheme of how this whole thing will unfold over time. But the key to our success long term is going to be for each of us to be willing to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Because we cannot, under any circumstance, revert to the norm, or revert to the comfortable. We can’t go back to putting kids in rows and giving grades and doing it just like we did in the past.”
To help his teachers resist reverting to the norm, Terrill structured a school day around team-taught interdisciplinary academic blocks and a 120-minute “X Period” during which students could dive more deeply into their project work or spend time building relationships with their advisory groups. He characterized the first week of school as “Dis-Orientation.” And he reserved the start of the year for an extended schoolwide exploration of core questions of identity: Who am I? Where do I come from? And to what extent do my genetics or geography shape who I am?
For Nikki Wallace, diversity and “dis-orientation” were precisely what she’d been looking for. A lifelong Memphian, molecular scientist, and mother of three boys, Wallace’s own experiences as a researcher had confirmed the importance of integrated settings — and their relative absence. “In every lab I worked in,” she explained, “I kept running up against the same negativity and the same obstacles. ‘Why are y’all making everything so difficult?’ I wanted to ask. ‘And where are all the other black folks?’”
Consequently, when Wallace first heard about the idea of redeveloping the old Sears building, and housing a new school within its walls, she was skeptical. “I assumed it would be another failed project in Memphis,” she confessed. “That has been a real issue in this city. But the idea of redesigning high school really sparked my interest as a researcher. As a parent of three boys, I knew I wanted to help kids fall in love with science.”
In time, Wallace became one of Terrill’s inaugural hires. Looking back on the school’s first two years, she recalls the unevenness of the process. “Overall I would say we didn’t do a great job of creating a community in which everyone felt accepted and could thrive. It was a struggle to get adults aligned on such a radical reimagining of how learning was supposed to unfold. It takes a lot of intention to make an organization out of the mess. When you’re doing something new, and trying to dismantle something that has always been the same, folks will fight back — but if you’re really intentional about the vision, you can create something new.”
Fellow teacher Bertram Williams agrees. As he puts it, “This model says that you have to iterate, and iterate, and iterate. Easy answers don’t leave room for perfection.”
“Nothing that’s worthwhile comes with an easy struggle,” added another founding faculty member, Jonathan Dodo. “Think of what we’re up against. We’re up against years of systematic inequality. We’re up against years of systemic racism. We’re up against years of students being passed through a system as just another number. In a project-based setting, we’re trying to work against all of that. When you have students from different backgrounds coming together and working on a lot of the same things, you have the exchange of ideas, you have the exchange of thought patterns, you have the exchange of thought processes.”
In fact, Crosstown’s founding student body was intentionally recruited to reflect the fullest possible reflection of its city’s diversity — thanks to Terrill’s careful tracking of which neighborhoods were getting over- or under-represented in enrollment figures, and then adjusting the school’s outreach efforts accordingly.
“We’re diverse not only in the way we look visually,” said a cheerful, earnest young girl named P.J., “but we’re diverse in the way we contribute to our relationships — it’s like you’re a family. This is why we’re here; this is what makes this school so unique.
“Just look at my lunch table,” she offered. “There are black people like me, but also white people, a Jewish person, atheists, gay people, non-binary people — short hair, long hair, dyed hair. This school did a good job. This is our place.”
Of course, it’s one thing to successfully recruit a diverse student body or outline a radically different school schedule. It’s another to turn those features into a truly vibrant, healthy, and high-functioning learning culture — something Terrill sees as a constant process. “Thus far,” he said as the school neared the end of its third year, “we’ve valued freedom over structure — but now we’re starting to see which processes we need to function optimally. And all of that starts with our emphasis on identity.”
For Nikki Wallace, this is where the real work must continue to be. “Our staff may be diverse, but after a few years, we started to see the same problems in Crosstown that we were seeing in Memphis. And if students see the white teachers grouping up, or the black teachers feeling undervalued, they’re going to learn the wrong lessons.
“How can we be diverse in a way that all of us are going to get along?” she asked. “We’re still not there, but it’s clear to all of us that the work can’t start until we are able to model for the students what doing the work looks like. It’s been a difficult road. But now we know what has to be done; it’s staring us in the face.
“We have to be integrated first if we ever want them to be.”
To that end, among the school’s most enduring processes are its opening week of “Dis-Orientation,” and its extended exploration of core questions of both individual and shared identity.
How does generational memory work? How does culture pass down? What is the root of the indigenous wisdom in you? Which aspects of place are fixed, and which are fluid? And what makes Memphis Memphis?
In one of the first group activities of the 2019–2020 school year, students were asked to offer their thoughts on that last question, and to post them on a large wall with sticky notes.
What their answers revealed are that Memphis is, to differing degrees, about eating good BBQ, experiencing crime, or feeling unsafe. And not surprisingly, those clusters corresponded to where people lived.
To better understand why this was so, the students broke themselves down by zip code to produce their own neighborhood newspapers, and then looked for patterns in how their papers were similar or different. What followed was a schoolwide investigation of the ways inequality played out across Memphis in six areas: the economy, housing, health care, education, transportation, and criminal justice. Within those areas, students chose individual or group projects of interest to research.
P.J. chose to track the history of lynchings in Shelby County. “When you brush things under the rug for too long, you’re going to start tripping,” she explained. “And Memphis is tripping right now. We have gotten used to things we should never have gotten used to.”
Her classmate, Britain, agreed. “We’re a very soulful city that is laced with a lot of brokenness from our past,” she explained. “In the past, I saw the inequality but I never really knew why. But my dad always said that Memphis is a place you can wrap your heart around. And now I feel like I have a better understanding of our beautiful and ugly history. We are all of those things, but we have the promise of hope and opportunity.
“We’re starting to build an environment,” P.J. added, “where everyone is always questioning — and no one is settling for what someone tells you.
“The world is so vast, in people and opinions and views — but high school’s a great place to dip your foot in the water and see what the world is really like.
“You need to go there. You need to find the truth yourself.”