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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Struggle Facing LeMoyne Is One Community Must Not Lose by Dr. Carol Johnson and Rev. Thomas Dipko

LeMoyne-Owen College has a rich heritage as the city's only historically black institution of higher learning. It has modeled African- American self-determination at its best and walked the talk of blacks and whites working in partnership.
Consider it a community conundrum. LeMoyne-Owen stands resolutely at the heart of re-emerging neighborhoods in South Memphis, a reminder of education's capacity to overcome the conditions of family background and circumstance. The school stands in the midst of a community in transition, and despite its current challenges, remains one of the magnets for attracting more than $150 million in new investments there in the last 10 years.

LeMoyne-Owen is also a struggling small college at the precipice of financial collapse.
These two seemingly disparate facts reflect the larger picture of the City of Memphis today -- prosperity for some, while too many families live in poverty; new jobs for hundreds while thousands of mostly young black men stand involuntarily idle on its streets.

Even as the college faces an immediate need for $3 million to continue operations -- $6 million by September -- all Memphians need a financially stable, academically strong LeMoyne-Owen, whether they realize it or not.

Why? The college has for generations taken first-generation high school and college graduates and created a pathway for them to have a better future than would otherwise be possible. Every year, the college opens its doors to embrace and educate students whose life circumstances would not necessarily predict their potential contributions.

They become employed, taxpaying, voting, law-abiding citizens. This investment in human capital has a sizable and positive economic and educational impact on the city. At a time when the Memphis City Schools promotes college-bound aspirations for every student, LeMoyne-Owen is uniquely situated to connect an under-served population with an education that can alter their life chances.

Many of LeMoyne-Owen's students come from the high schools in or nearby Memphis. They come from families that often live in poverty and are less able to pay the full costs of a college education.

In Memphis City Schools, the four-year high school graduation rates for African-American young men in particular are significantly below their Asian, white and black female peers.

Now more than ever before, our students (particularly our African-American males) need the evidence that college is within reach and within walking distance of their neighborhood, even if higher education is in stark contrast to everything else around them.

Too many black men are unemployed, under-employed, imprisoned, under-educated; it doesn't take a rocket scientist to envision how the college can play a pivotal role in changing these dynamics.

Moreover, preparing teachers to effectively educate these students requires different and more intentional instructional strategies. The education of poor urban students requires different strategies and techniques to provide accelerated learning for students who enter school already behind their peers.

LeMoyne-Owen has a strong legacy of preparing teachers and creating leaders in the Memphis community. MCS teachers see a great benefit in a partnership that brings together the Pre K-12 system and a post-secondary institution in the preparation of teachers who serve in our most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

The Hollis F. Price Middle College at LeMoyne-Owen, supported by the Gates Foundation and the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), is a first step in that direction.

Fortunately, Interim President Johnnie B. Watson and the LeMoyne-Owen board recognize this. With input from stakeholders over the last year, the college has developed a seven-point recovery program designed to bring about the needed transformation.

This new direction includes:

Continued leadership restructuring, including the search for a new president and a streamlined board of trustees.

New vision and mission statements, now adopted and in use.

A review of academic programs to align curriculum with marketplace needs and concentrate on fewer majors, focusing on those where the college can achieve excellence.

Building new strategies for fundraising, marketing and alumni development.

Upgrading fiscal management, including the recent hiring of Jim Dugger as CFO, and reducing expenses.

Completion of a strategic plan that achieves consensus from major donors and constituents and develops more community partnerships.

Renewing enrollment practices with a focus on intervention strategies targeting black males.

Now is not the time to complain about past leadership, or the slow pace of change or restructuring. Now is not the time to give up. The problem is that time is ticking by quickly.

The school's debt looms as a major obstacle on the road that leaves Memphis with two questions:

Are there philanthropists and corporations in the city and county who can and will work together to help erase the accumulated debt? And what would be the cost to the community if we lose this beacon of hope?

LeMoyne-Owen's leaders have committed to a realistic timetable for reaching self-sufficiency by 2009-10. But the college needs immediate help.

This will require a long-term, shared effort by the entire community.

Memphis is a better city with LeMoyne-Owen College. We can't afford to act otherwise.

Dr. Carol Johnson is superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Rev. Thomas Dipko is a member of the LeMoyne-Owen board of trustees. This commentary appears in The Memphis Commerical Appeal

Dr. Carol Johnson and Rev. Thomas Dipko

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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