Shelby County Students Deserve Education, Granting Them Control of Their Journey

By Joi Taylor

I’m 24 years old and squarely within the Millennial generation. Despite my relatively young age, I’ve already learned that choices, both big and small, can have an incredible impact on the trajectory of life. I’ve learned that life is made up of an infinite number of choices. And, big or small, the choices you make have an incredible impact on the trajectory of life.

For my part, I can tell you how much of a difference a choice made in my life. I am who I am because my mother and grandmother had a choice. A choice that helped craft the rest of my future. They made a choice in the quality of my education.

Education has been my foundation

I am a proud graduate of two independent schools in Memphis, Tennessee. New Hope Christian Academy, my elementary school, and Evangelical Christian School, my middle and high school, which I attended with the help of a private scholarship.

Where a family decides to place their child in school helps lay the foundation for that child’s academic and social life. I lived in a ZIP code where poverty ran rampant, and the schools were some of the lowest performing in the state. My family was adamant that my residence would not determine the quality of my education.

The opportunity to attend a school other than the one to which I was zoned set me on an entirely different path. My education empowered me to break the image of what comes out of my community, of what comes out of my ZIP code.

New Hope Christian Academy instilled in me the importance of hard work and servant leadership. The community of leaders and teachers taught me to dream bigger for what my future could actually hold. Evangelical Christian School taught me academic discipline. Discipline that stretched me beyond measure, prepared me for college, and provided extracurricular activities that pushed my thinking and challenged my worldview.

I graduated from the University of Memphis, Magna Cum Laude, with a degree in social work, debt free. While many factors contributed to this accomplishment, the truth of the matter is that I couldn’t have done it without the foundation my independent schools laid for me. I would not have been able to have such opportunities without independent schools and scholarships to attend those schools.

Ensuring my story happens to others

More students like me, students who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, deserve the same chance to break the chains of poverty. That is why I advocate for kids to have the opportunity I had and the chance to rewrite their family’s outcome.

We all know that not every learning environment is suitable for every child. One-size-fits-all often ends up fitting none. That is why there is power in choice.

In the politically charged debate over the recently passed Education Saving Accounts (ESAs) legislation in Tennessee, it seems to me that we have forgotten about the real subject at hand: the children, their education, and the chance for them to succeed.

Shelby County is the largest school district in the state and has among the highest expenditures per pupil. However, four out of every five Memphis third graders cannot read on grade level. In high school, less than 15 percent of students in Shelby County are not on grade level in math.

The state department of education found that only 18 percent of students in Shelby County are ready to graduate, yet the graduation rate was still 80 percent. These numbers are devastating. They represent real children, actual students, who may or may not be destined to live in poverty because they have been left underserved and unprepared.

The beauty of choice

Education gives families an opportunity to dream and make plans for a better future. Tennessee believes in education. Now that ESAs have been passed for Tennessee, low income families may have access to quality education   and an opportunity to break out of the cycles of poverty that plague our communities.

Every child, regardless of their family’s income or ZIP code, deserves a quality education that fits them. Giving a family the opportunity to decide where their child receives an education is granting them control over their journey and that is something I will always support.

Joi Taylor is a native Memphian and recent graduate of the University of Memphis. She is currently a Future Leadership Fellow with the American Federation for Children.