Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School will open this fall just blocks from Soulsville USA where its founder Michael McKenna hopes the school will become the best in the nation.
It all started in Soulsville for Michael McKenna.
Well, not everything, but pretty close. The Philadelphia native attended Princeton University before moving to Memphis. McKenna’s love of education was cultivated at Soulsville Charter School where he began teaching when the school opened in 2005. He was an eighth-grade math teacher and remained at the school for six years until going back home to Philadelphia in 2012 to work at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School as an eighth-grade math teacher and then assistant principal.
But while Philadelphia was his hometown, Memphis was home. McKenna and his wife, Elza, missed the people of Soulsville and South Memphis generally.
They moved back in August 2015 with a purpose. Yes, they missed the city, but McKenna returned as school leader of Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School, which will open in August in the former Lincoln Elementary School at 1566 S. Orleans St.
McKenna wrote the charter and submitted it in April 2015. It was the only new charter school to receive approval, which happened in July.
The 355-page school plan outlines McKenna’s vision for a school, much of the same ideas from when he was just getting started in education. McKenna said his career path has been pointing toward leading a school.
“Since I was 23 I’ve been telling people I want to run a charter school,” he said. “I even have emails to people, ‘You want to be on my board? I want to start a charter school.’ When I moved to Philadelphia the plan was to open a school there.”
McKenna went through leadership training with KIPP. After leaving, he began thinking about Memphis.
McKenna worked with the educational consulting nonprofit organization Jounce Partners as a Jounce School Leader Fellow, where he developed school leadership skills while coaching leaders to be effective teacher coaches.
The backbone of Delta Prep includes the idea that one school leader spends 80 percent of his or her time directly coaching teachers.
“We fundamentally think the school leader position has to be 100 percent focused on teacher development,” he said. “The entire model is based on that idea.
“We wrote the charter to be in South Memphis because this is home. I spent six years every waking moment in Soulsville. I got to school every day before the security guard and I closed the building down at night. It’s not healthy but the nice part is I got to learn the community really well.”
McKenna hopes to use that community knowledge as he works to build a staff and accept students. The school will have a staff of 30, 22 of which will be teachers. The school will be kindergarten through fourth grade, with a total of 300 students.
Each grade has two classes with 30 students each, and each classroom is co-taught with two teachers each.
The typical route for a charter school is to start with one or two grades and build each year.
“Starting small allows you to build slow and build a tight culture,” he said. “We decided to start with five grades at once. It’s atypical. There is a need in South Memphis for lower-grade schools. This allows us to say, ‘Do you have 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds?’”
Any Shelby County resident is eligible to enroll at a charter school, assuming there are available spots. The lottery date is March 31 to fill spots if more than the allotted 60 students per grade level enroll.
For example, if 70 kindergartners sign up for the 60 spots the lottery will determine which students enroll. The remaining 10 students will go on a waiting list.
And while any student in the county can enroll, McKenna said he is targeting a 2-square-mile area around the school.
“We want to be as much a neighborhood school as possible,” he said. “Soulsville is exactly where we want to target. So that’s where I spend time knocking on doors and speaking at daycares and heading to churches to speak.”
For now, Delta Prep will use just part of the former Lincoln Elementary building. Shelby County Schools closed the school in the spring of 2015, so the building has only been vacant for the current academic year.
“That’s great news for us because it’s in great shape,” McKenna said. “But also this school has been here since 1923. So there are generations of families who live in this area and they were sad when it got shut down. It’s nice to tell families that live right here and be able to tell them we’re reopening.”
McKenna said Delta Prep will be known first and foremost for teacher development.
“Our school is fanatically focused on making sure our teachers are developing every day,” he said. “Our tagline is practice, smile, grow. Those three core values guide everything. Practice is the idea that the way to get better is high repetition of key skills. We want our teachers to practice every day how they ask questions, how they write lesson plans. All that practice will lead to great growth. … Smile is because I love this work. I love working in schools and coaching teachers and helping students. We will smile every day, laugh every day and have a blast doing this work.”
Oh, and a funny thing about South Memphis, Soulsville and a family. McKenna met his wife, Elza, at Soulsville Charter School, where she was an eighth-grade language arts teacher. She was from Princeton, New Jersey, and while returning home as they started a family that has grown to three children made a lot of sense, so did coming back.
“This is our neighborhood,” McKenna said. “What I thought when I moved to Philadelphia was I wanted to run a school. When I got there I realized I wanted to run a school in South Memphis. This is just affirmation of that spending time here every day.”