Lisa Smith faces a room of excited but cautious teens. Her topic is public speaking and she’s trying to get these high school juniors, all members of Memphis Challenge, pumped up about speaking in front of an audience.
“Make it exciting! You can open with a statistic or question,” she says, her smile offering encouragement as she assigns the topic: Planting a Garden. The students begin scribbling.
Memphis Challenge makes learning intentional. The nonprofit targets high-achieving minority teens, coaching them in leadership principles and preparing them for college and the work world. Their aim: To develop future leaders for our city.
“We have over 500 alums,” says Cassandra Webster, executive director. “About half of them come back to Memphis.”
A’Doriann Bradley, 16, a junior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, likes what she’s hearing at the public speaking workshop. She finds learning how to manage the on-the-spot pressure of public speaking helpful. Since Memphis Challenge draws students from charter, public, and private schools, she meets a variety of students who share similar goals: to be college-bound.
Memphis Challenge Gets Results
“We have a track record with universities,” notes Webster. The organization’s 26 graduates from the class of 2014 are now freshmen at competitive schools, like Rhodes, Macalester, and Amherst colleges; Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, Howard, even Yale University.
“We teach them soft skills,” says Webster, like how to improve time management and study more effectively.
The nonprofit was founded in 1989 and began with just 25 seniors from East High School. Over the years, the program has “expanded downward,” so to speak, to include 11th, 10th, and 9th graders. Admission is competitive; to be accepted, students must have and maintain a 3.5 grade point average each year. Memphis Challenge seeks to attract freshmen and keep them throughout their high school years. Why? “Because it takes four years to build a GPA,” says McKenzii Webster, a member of the Memphis Challenge Fellow Program and a 2009 Challenger graduate.
“The aim of Memphis Challenge is to provide college prep and professional development,” says McKenzii, who is also Cassandra’s daughter. She graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and awaits word on law school applications for the fall.
Rubbing Shoulders With City Leadership
Memphis Challenge occupies the ground floor of Emerge Memphis, a refurbished warehouse in the South Main District of downtown. “Memphis Challenge is part of an ecosystem that nurtures emerging businesses. Emerge Memphis is a business incubator,” says Webster. The location is ideal for rubbing shoulders with the city’s leadership in industry, healthcare, and politics. Challengers frequently land paid summer internships with AutoZone, FedEx, and International Paper. “We show them a bigger picture of Memphis and what it takes to make the city tick,” she says. “We help them see beyond their neighborhood. All the while, we seek to present a model of excellence.”
Senior Challengers get ACT prep sessions on Saturdays, says Webster, where “they practice, practice, practice.” The junior year concentrates on financial literacy, public speaking, and goal setting. “Students get their eyes opened regarding what’s taken out with each paycheck from a full-time job.” Workshops also stress organization and time management skills, Why? Because students often procrastinate, notes McKenzii, and must learn to manage the constant distractions of social media and electronics.
Stepping Outside Comfort Zones
The organization also helps students gain insights into career paths. If a teen wants to be a lawyer, how does he get there? “We set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely,” says Webster. Ninth and tenth graders take part in a three-unit module called The 9/10 Movement. The January introduction seeks to create a “culture of intellectual sophistication” by stressing that students do “what is required, when it is required.”
Accelerated Intellectual Boot Camp follows in late June, with a focus on developing critical thinking, verbal, and team-building skills. While mentoring from Challenge graduates is essential throughout the program’s years, it is particularly emphasized during this hands-on month.
The third module runs from September to May and brings out the diversity of the world. This module intentionally pushes students outside their comfort zones and familiar environments.
Taylor Washington, 16, a junior from Arlington High School, joined A’Doriann in the recent public speaking workshop. “It helped me because I am going into law,” Taylor explains. She also appreciates the emphasis Memphis Challenge gives on writing college placement essays. “I really need all the help I can get,” she says with a laugh.
According to statistics and results, Memphis Challenge not only offers help but makes learning exciting and even fun along the way. They are opening doors to the future.
Interested in Applying for Memphis Challenge?
The organization is currently accepting applications for their 2015-2016 class. Applicants must have the following:
- Scholastic average of 3.5 or higher
- ACT score of at least 25 or a combined SAT score of 1500 (applies to senior applicants only
- Recommendations from guidance counselor and teachers
- Proven leadership skills, particularly in community service
To learn more, go to memphischallenge.org