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  3. Data Book VIII: | Urban Child Institute
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Multiple lawsuits ensued, and a federal judge ruled on Sept. In the mids, Memphis had about , students, nearly equally split among whites and blacks, in segregated schools. Efforts to desegregate were met with subterfuge and delay, said Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis law professor who has written about the topic.

More recently, the suburbs have diversified, as middle-class black families left behind an impoverished central city. But the Shelby school board remained all white, and much of the system still seems segregated.

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Collierville High School, outside Memphis, was 82 percent white last year, while Southwind High, 10 miles away, also outside the city limits, was 94 percent black. As for the city, Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College, said that he had hoped to compare student achievement among middle class and impoverished schools, but that he could not. Despite the current inequality, nobody expects the demographics of schools to change much, because most students in both districts are assigned to neighborhood schools and housing tends to be segregated.

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That has not changed the minds of people like Mr. Clayton, who told The New York Times in that he had left the public schools because of mounting chaos caused by desegregation.

Data Book VIII: | Urban Child Institute

Clayton, who was the principal of two traditionally white Memphis high schools from to , won election in to the Shelby County school board, where he and his colleagues were shocked when the Memphis board first voted for the merger. They have not given up. The legislature passed a law in February that, as of September , lifts a prohibition on the formation of autonomous school districts, and five of the six Shelby County suburbs have hired consultants to study the finances of breaking away.

For now, the two new boards are trying to combine the districts, which, improbably, have both long had their headquarters in a rambling office building in central Memphis. A corridor linking the two wings of the building has, for years, had double-locked doors whose glass panels are covered with particle board.

Memphis, Tennessee

Billy Orgel, a telecommunications executive who was elected president of the merged school board, asked officials of both districts to break down the barricade. Orgel said the doors had been opened, but a few days later, people in the building said they were still locked.

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They say that often these days at The Urban Child Institute, because it seems that everywhere we look, people are talking about the importance and impact of early brain development. Truth be told, when TUCI began its efforts to spread the word, the folks there were unsure how successful it could be.

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And yet, they knew that we, as a community, had to act. In all of its work, it had become clear that few factors have as much impact on Memphis — present and future — than whether we can ensure that every child has a fair start in life, as measured by optimal development of his brain. Once we start following the ripples from this central principle, they take us from literacy to graduation rates, from breastfeeding to fatherhood, from domestic violence to toxic stress, from epigenetics to the return on investment for high-quality early childhood programs, and much more.

TUCI knew that in a sound bite world, making these issues high priorities in our community would hinge on whether Memphians were willing to become active advocates for the youngest Memphians. The response has been overwhelming, and TUCI reports that because of you, the science of early brain development is more and more moving into the mainstream. The day featured Dr. Over at the New Memphis Institute, its recently revamped news magazine, Memphis Connect, which chronicles all things important to Memphis, regularly features early childhood issues.

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Meanwhile, early childhood development and school readiness are regular topics being discussed by our political leadership, particularly by those working to ensure that the new merged school district for Shelby County is known for its quality Pre-K system. In addition, a number of local organizations and community leaders are discussing how they can create momentum for early childhood development programs.

The importance of our local conversation is being underscored at the national level. In other words, there is no question that we are on the right track in Memphis and we should be proud that on the issue affecting the youngest among us, we are on the leading edge of cities. Our community is moving the needle on public knowledge about the importance of brain development. There is a growing constituency calling for more attention and funding so every child enters school ready to learn. Just as it is scientifically proven that brain development for our youngest children opens up better possibilities for their futures, Memphis today is proving that the only thing as powerful as an idea whose time has come are the people that advocate for it — and that is us, the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County.

A version of this post appeared previously on The Urban Child Institute website as part of its Perceptions series of commentaries.