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The Columns: Alumni Reviews

 

Don't call Margaret Taylor retired

by Gabrielle Maxey

Margaret Taylor and Shirley Raines
University of Memphis President Shirley Raines honors longtime teacher Margaret Taylor with a special award. Taylor, 90, is still active in Memphis City Schools.

Margaret Taylor ended her 41-year career as a teacher and principal in the Memphis City Schools in 1995, but she's hardly retired. At age 90, she works full time for a mentoring program at East High School designed to generate excitement for learning and give students the necessary tools to graduate and pursue meaningful careers.

Taylor (BS ’63, MA ’66) retired from Grahamwood Elementary School 12 years ago after serving as principal from 1972-96. She quickly returned to school, serving as substitute principal for six years and supervisor of student teachers at the University of Memphis for four years.

Under her direction, Grahamwood was designated a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and was named one of the 10 best schools in the state. Grahamwood was so popular during that time that parents would camp out overnight at the Board of Education just to get to their children spots at the school.

Taylor prefers to share the accolades she earned as an educator. “We had the best faculty, good kids, good, supportive parents, and the Board of Education supported us,” says the lively nonagenarian who wears her hair in a sensible gray bun. Taylor has won a string of personal honors as well. She was named Educator of the Year by the University of Memphis Society and Memphis' Outstanding Senior Citizen by the Downtown Kiwanis Club.

Taylor was tapped for the Peer Power program by businessman and benefactor Charles McVean, who established the Greater East Foundation in 2004. McVean, a 1961 East High graduate and former student of Taylor's, donated $1 million to the school to pay for extra support teachers, building improvements and payments to students who make good grades and who tutor other students. Under the pay-for-performance plan, students make $10 an hour for tutoring math, English and science. The students who attend tutoring sessions, called “scholars,” can earn incentives for good grades.

Tutoring is done for an hour after school Monday through Thursday and three hours on Saturday. East added an eighth period at the end of the day, with only tutoring allowed during that time. Athletics, cheerleading, choir and other activities must wait until after tutoring.

There are 35 to 40 tutors at East, upperclassmen recruited from the ranks of honor students. They tutor about 100 scholars. Tutors train three days a week for around an hour and a half and teach six to eight hours a week. Tutors are paid for the time they train as well as their teaching. “The tutors benefit by the additional training in communication, academic skills and leadership,” says foundation director Bill Sehnert. “They work nine to 12 hours a week, so they don't need to get a job outside of school.”

Scholars and tutors also have a chance to win cash and other prizes in weekly and six-week grading period team competitions. Teams earn points based on quizzes, tests, attendance, and class and conduct grades.

Many students in Memphis City Schools are classified as economically disadvantaged, says Sehnert. A large number come from single-parent homes, which generally have lower incomes than two-parent families. The way to break the cycle of poverty, says Sehnert, is education. “We want the students to see the connection between hard work, good grades and rewards for performance,” he says. “We take kids and advance them a little every day. We make incremental advances. We try to improve not only their grades, but their conduct.”

The results have been impressive since the program was launched three years ago. Of students who attended tutoring last year, 100 percent passed their algebra Gateway exam, compared to 72 percent schoolwide. Of seventh and eighth-graders who were tutored, 100 percent passed the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test last year, with 51 percent scoring advanced in math. In addition, all of the tutors went on to attend four-year colleges.

The Peer Power model was created so that other schools can adopt it. The program already is in place at Whitehaven High School. “Margaret Taylor is blessed and also a blessing by being productive in a vital field into her 90s,” says Anne Freeman, who established the program at Whitehaven with her husband, Dr. Jerre Freeman. “She has a ready and contagious laugh, a face full of life and a quick wit. I've seen her laughing at a joke while some friends decades younger are still scratching their heads.”

McVean has similar praise. “ ‘Lady Margaret’ taught me eighth-grade math at East High School in 1956 through '57,” he says. "She is every bit as sharp now as she was more than 50 years ago. Margaret makes a huge contribution to our program at East and is an inspiration to me each and every day. She is a wonderful living example of what the Greatest Generation was all about.”

Taylor is usually at East by 8 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays. “Sometimes I stay until 4:30, 5, sometimes 7,” she says. Taylor takes Fridays off since there is tutoring on Saturdays. She reserves some Fridays for trips to casinos in Tunica. (“I take $50 with me. When I spend what I took, I’m done,” she explains.) Taylor also has been active in Leadership Memphis, the Kiwanis Club, the Germantown Education Commission, the Memphis Symphony League and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

How does she manage when many others her age have retired? “I keep on keeping on,” says Taylor. “It keeps me involved. It's a challenge. I like to see kids learning.”

Tutors and scholars at East begin each learning session by saying a creed which begins “I want to be somebody some day.” Most would agree that Margaret Taylor is someone indeed.

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