Soon after starting his job as superintendent of the Memphis, Tenn., public schools in 2008, Kriner Cash ordered an assessment of his new district's 104,000 students. The findings were grim: nearly a third had been held back at least one academic year. The high school graduation rate had fallen to 67%. One in five dropped out. But what most concerned him was that the number of students considered "highly mobile," meaning they had moved at least once during the school year, had ballooned to 34,000, partly because of the home-foreclosure crisis. At least 1,500 students were homeless--probably more. "I had a whole array of students who were angry, depressed, not getting the rest they needed," Cash says. It led him to ponder an unusual proposition: What if the best way to help kids in impoverished urban neighborhoods is to get them out?
Cash is now calling for Memphis to create a residential school for 300 to 400 kids whose parents are in financial distress, with a live-in faculty rivaling those of élite New England prep schools. His proposal is at the forefront of a broader national trend: from New Jersey to Wisconsin to California, school districts and private investors are developing similar projects. Supporters hope that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who pushed for public boarding schools as CEO of Chicago's school system, will give the programs even greater traction. (See pictures of public boarding schools.)
Public boarding schools are hardly a new concept. Institutions in Indiana and Pennsylvania took in the children of dead Civil War veterans, and Louisiana and Illinois offered residential programs for gifted students in the 1980s. But publicly financing boarding schools for inner-city kids is a very different proposition. It was revolutionary in the late 1990s, when two consultants quit their jobs and began raising money to open the SEED School, a charter school in gritty Southeast Washington.
If Cash's dream becomes a reality, it will probably look a lot like SEED, which stands for Schools for Educational Evolution and Development. Its 320 students--seventh- to 12th-graders--live on campus five days a week. They are expected to adhere to a strict dress code and keep their room tidy. There are computers in the dorms' common areas, and each student in grades 10 and above is given a desktop computer. At 11:30 every night, it's lights out. "Principals often say, 'If I could just extend my day a little longer, I could do so much,'" says SEED's head of school, Charles Adams. "Here, there's the gift of time. So there's no excuse."
In his plan for Memphis, Cash wants even more time. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of his proposal is to focus on students in grades 3 through 5. Homelessness is growing sharply among kids at that critical age, when much of their educational foundation is set, Cash says. His aim: to thwart illiteracy and clear other learning roadblocks early, so the problem "won't migrate into middle and high school." Students will remain on campus year-round. "I don't see that there's anything better in the summertime in their neighborhoods," he notes. The school would cost up to $50,000 a day to operate--three times the cost of a traditional day school with more than twice as many students. "It sounds very exciting, but the devil is in the details," says Ellen Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness in Newton, Mass. "What's it like to separate a third- or fifth-grader from their parents?"
It may help to consider the experience of SEED student Mansur Muhammad, 17. When he arrived seven years ago, the first few weeks were tough. He'd often call his mother and write his dad. Friendships he had in his old neighborhood frayed. But Muhammad, now an honor-roll senior who hopes to become his family's first college graduate, hasn't looked back. He maintains a 3.2 GPA and reshelves books in the school's library for $160 every couple of days, when he's not in his room listening to rap or classical music and writing poetry. Inspired by a teacher, Muhammad is working on a book. "It was a long road for me to get here," he says, "and I have a long way to go."