- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

FRAYSER, Tenn. (AP) - For 16-year-old Banderas Walker, who speaks softly and wears nail polish, school was a series of fights and bullies. His situation was so bad, he says, Shelby County Schools allowed him “safety transfers.”

After two transfers that turned out not to be safe, Walker is finishing school at Pathways in Education, a storefront school in Frayser’s Northgate Shopping Center, designed for students who couldn’t survive traditional high school.

They include Demarco Dumas, 19, a young man who grew up during the three years he sat life out at home after being kicked out (he says for good) of Memphis City Schools.

“Now, I am back to better myself and earn my high school diploma and hopefully go back to Job Corps to finish my trade,” Dumas said, tight, short locks of hair framing his face.

“I bared with it, but staying out of school for three years it got bad,” he said.

Nearly three months after it opened, California-based Pathways celebrated its start in Tennessee this month, cutting a ceremonial ribbon and announcing a second campus, opening this summer in Whitehaven.

“In the first few months, we thought we would have 50 students, and we were fine with that,” said principal and Frayser native Jennifer Isom. “But within the first month, we met our 100th student. It grew rapidly.”

Pathways has 133 students, divided among five teachers. Students are required to spend two hours a week in class, working with the one teacher-adviser who oversees their homework (six hours a day), test scores and life stories.

“Here, because you are working individually, I get to see your skills,” said Marcus Jennings, a traditional public schoolteacher who’s found his calling in the storefront.

“If you had told some of my students in my class in 2001 that they could leave when they wanted, they would get up and leave immediately, versus these students here that are staying and committed. It’s great.

“The adults are even more driven and committed. Some of them will finish two, three units a week. Adults see the importance of a diploma. They know now and are extremely driven.”

Pathways is part of the Achievement School District, the state-run experiment in taking schools in the bottom 5 percent and moving them to the top 25 percent.

“We didn’t want to wait until the end of the school year to get this school started. There is a need right now,” ASD Supt. Chris Barbic, guest speaker at the Frayser Exchange Club lunch Thursday, told the crowded banquet room at Sarah Lee’s on North Watkins.

“We have kids that are 14 in fifth grade. We’ve got 14-year-olds in fifth grade,” he said again, watching the crowd as the message sunk in. “That student does not need to be in elementary school. We want to help them get caught up, get back on track with their peers.”

With Pathways at Northgate, he said, they no longer have to leave Frayser to do it.

Pathways started nearly 25 years ago in California, giving kids who had failed in school a chance to work for a week or more on ranches it owns in the West if they made their goals. Today, Pathways has more than 70 schools in the state, plus two schools in Chicago and two more opening there in the fall.

“We have 300 students in each of the Chicago schools,” said Martin McGreal, Chicago regional director, who was in Memphis Thursday.

“All students get a chance to go to the ranch. The Memphis kids will, too,” he said.

About a third of Pathways students are adults, students who are new to Pathways because the other states where it operates do not fund adult learners as Tennessee does. Shelby County Schools expects to close its Southeast Prep school with budget cuts this year, eliminating 500 seats for the kinds of students Pathways wants.

“We think it may mean we’ll be opening our third campus sooner than we thought,” Isom said.

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