Watch list

Shelby County Schools says it needs to close more schools. Here are 25 that are at risk.

As Shelby County Schools embarks on a process to cut costs by closing schools, two dozen Memphis schools already have three strikes against them.

Twenty-five schools have test scores so low that the state could require them to be overhauled; enroll fewer than 70 percent as many students as their buildings can hold; and operate in space that would cost more than $1 million on average to bring up to date, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of district data.

Those schools could be most vulnerable for closure in the near future as the district looks for ways to reduce costs and capacity in response to declining student enrollment. They include Raleigh Egypt High School, East High School, Bruce Elementary School and 12 iZone schools.

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The district is preparing to release a study of its space footprint this fall as part of a “right-sizing” process that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson jumpstarted this spring. He has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. Already this year, the district is closing two schools and one center serving adult students in an effort to trim costs.

The district considers enrollment, maintenance costs, and test score performance when deciding which schools to close. School board member Kevin Woods said there is no cut-and-dry threshold for low enrollment that makes a school eligible for closure, although previous closures since 2012 have included schools with utilization rates up to 71 percent.

District officials have declined to comment on schools’ utilization rates before releasing the footprint study this fall. (After this story was published, officials released a statement reiterating that they will release a plan that includes collaboration with the community. “Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts,” the statement said.)

The district-run schools the school board decided this year to shutter — Northside and Carver high schools — were each using less than a third of their space and together needed $8.6 million in repairs. After Northside closes in a year, both buildings will sit empty while the district decides whether to repurpose or demolish them.

Northside and Carver are the most under-enrolled schools in the district, with only 23 and 31 percent of seats filled, respectively.

Hamilton Middle School is the next least crowded, with 383 students using a building designed for nearly 1,200. (At the other end of the spectrum is Wells Station Elementary School, where 754 students are crammed into a building meant for half as many.)

Hamilton was one of the district’s first schools in its vaunted Innovation Zone initiative, in which some low-performing schools are getting extra money to boost student scores. That initiative could complicate the district’s decision-making in the coming years: Twelve of the schools with three strikes are in the iZone, meaning that a decision to close them would undercut the district’s own recent investments. The district is also planning to add new grades and programs to other schools meeting all three closure conditions, suggesting that the district might intend to keep them open.

Shelby County’s many underused and poorly maintained buildings have played a major role in this year’s budget negotiations. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which supplies most of the funding for school facilities, have questioned why they should contribute more to the district when it could move more quickly to close underused schools.

“Without a budget deficit, you’re not closing schools,” Commissioner David Reaves told Hopson during a hearing about whether the commission should allocate more money to school operations. “I don’t believe without a burning reason to do it that your board gets the job done.”

Below, find the district-run schools that are using no more than 70 percent of their space. Schools that also are on the state’s “priority” list of low-performing schools or in danger of joining it and would require more than $1 million to bring up to date are in bold.

  1. Northside High School
  2. Carver High School
  3. Hamilton Middle School
  4. Vollentine Elementary School
  5. Westwood High School
  6. East High School
  7. Magnolia Elementary School
  8. Mt. Pisgah Middle School
  9. Hamilton High School
  10. Woodstock Middle School
  11. Carnes Elementary School
  12. Trezevant High School
  13. Dexter Middle School
  14. Getwell Elementary School
  15. A. B. Hill Elementary School
  16. Northaven Elementary School
  17. Manor Lake Elementary School
  18. Manassas High School
  19. Mitchell High School
  20. Melrose High School
  21. Cordova Middle School
  22. Lucy Elementary School
  23. Raleigh-Egypt High School
  24. Alcy Elementary School
  25. Geeter Middle School
  26. Bruce Elementary School
  27. Hawkins Mill Elementary School
  28. Treadwell Middle School
  29. Bethel Grove Elementary School
  30. Chickasaw Middle School
  31. Double Tree Elementary School
  32. Douglass High School
  33. Alton Elementary School
  34. Oakhaven High School
  35. Southwind High School
  36. LaRose Elementary School

You can see all 142 district-run school’s enrollment data and maintenance costs here. Pay special attention to the “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost of the building. The higher the number, the less cost effective it is for the district to keep the building open.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement issued Wednesday by Shelby County Schools.


Hopson now wants to invest in struggling Memphis schools instead of just closing them

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

Declaring “we’ve learned a lot” in the last four years, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Tuesday said it’s time to make investments in Memphis’ lowest-performing schools after years of shuttering them.

He rolled out a new framework for determining how to do just that, starting with 11 schools — 10 of which are in the state’s bottom 10 percent — that soon will receive “treatment plans” to address academics, building needs and enrollment.

The plans will include components pulled from the Innovation Zone, the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Possibilities include additional instructional time, new faculty positions such as intervention support staff for high-need students, and beefed-up before- and after-school programs.

He declined to estimate a price tag for the proposed investments, but said they will be included in the district’s 2017-18 proposed budget, expected to be presented in the next month. The approach is scheduled to be discussed in more detail at Tuesday night’s school board work session.

“Our hope is that we’re able to invest in an unprecedented way and do it in a sustainable way,” Hopson told reporters during a morning press call.

The 11 schools on the “critical focus school list” are:

  • Alton Elementary
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hamilton Elementary
  • Hamilton Middle (iZone)
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Scenic Hills Elementary
  • Springdale Elementary
  • Trezevant High (iZone)
  • Westwood High (iZone)
  • Wooddale High.

Eight other schools already are receiving supports under Hopson’s recent plan to build, close and consolidate schools in the district.

The new framework arrives as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to bring a systematic and transparent approach to improving schools and shedding others in the bloated, mostly underperforming system. In the last year, leaders conducted a year-long facilities study and held community meetings across the county to figure out how best to right-size the district.

Hopson said his administration has been consumed with “trying to clear up a huge mess” left by the 2013 merger of city and county schools and the 2014 exit of six municipalities that created their own school systems. Four years in, the district has “stabilized,” he said.

“We’re in the most stable financial situation I can recall over the last six years,” Hopson added.

“We’re in a continuous improvement mode here, not just in academics but the way we do business. We’ll be putting schools up against this framework every single year,” he said.

Dunbar Elementary is a recent example of how the district is seeking to change its approach to schools on the bubble for closure. Dunbar was on the chopping block this year but, after community outcry last month, Hopson’s administration spared the Orange Mound school and opted instead to invest in it.

Hopson said he has spoken with each principal from the 11 schools that will receive new treatment plans in the next 60 days.

“We’ve got to spend time with schools to figure out what needs are,” he said, noting there are no uniform solutions.

Hopson emphasized that the new framework is not a list for closing schools, although the targeted schools could still close later if they don’t improve.

Shelby County Schools has closed 15 schools during Hopson’s tenure as superintendent and, just last spring, he suggested that the district would have to close up to 24 more in the next five years. That number has since decreased to 18.

Hopson said the framework should help the district sort out those decisions.

“As long as we’re seeing improvement, then closure is not going to be something we’re talking about,” he said. “We want to give schools time.”

He added that new school principals typically are given about three years to make changes.

That timeline aligns with the Tennessee Department of Education’s proposed school improvement guidelines developed in response to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Under the proposal, the state is seeking to give districts more time to implement turnaround strategies before the state intervenes.

Below, you can read the district’s fact sheet about the new framework:

school closures

Hopson just backed away from closing one failing Memphis school. Here are three things to know.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

For more than a year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has beat a steady drum about the need to reduce the number of empty classroom seats in Memphis by closing schools and reconfiguring Tennessee’s largest district.

So many were taken by surprise on Tuesday night when Hopson announced that he had changed his mind about shuttering Dunbar Elementary, one of the first schools targeted in Hopson’s plan to close, build and consolidate schools.

School closures are nothing new in Memphis. But the newest round proposed last fall promised to be different. For the first time, Hopson and his team had used a comprehensive analysis of data to make their recommendations. Dunbar fit two of those criteria — low test scores and high building maintenance needs.

During the last week, however, a number of factors converged to change the fate for Dunbar, at least for the next year.

Here are three things to know now as Shelby County Schools moves forward with Hopson’s plan to right-size the district:

Hopson is showing a willingness to deviate from what the data says.

When considering which Memphis schools to close, three data points are factored in: low test scores, severe underenrollment, and high building maintenance costs.

Initially, Hopson said it was a “no brainer” to start by closing Dunbar and six other schools that fit some or all of those criteria.

But he took a second look after seeing a groundswell of community support around Dunbar from residents of Orange Mound, the historic African-American neighborhood that recently received a national heritage designation. So instead of closing the school based strictly on the data, Hopson used the school’s higher enrollment and the community support to justify new academic and capital investments.

“I have really heard you all loud and clear,” Hopson told Dunbar supporters before announcing he was tabling his recommendation. “And it’s not necessarily the words that I heard but it’s the actions behind the words that piqued my interest. You’ve got a committed community. And unlike other instances, … you don’t have (an enrollment) issue.”

Memphians have long complained that district leaders don’t listen to their concerns, while school leaders have often complained about a lack of parent and community involvement in many schools. Seeing Orange Mound’s outpouring of support for its last locally operated neighborhood school appeared to make the difference.

The district remains vigilant about retaining its students.

Dunbar is the only elementary school left in Orange Mound that’s operated by Shelby County Schools.

Keeping Dunbar open allows the local district to retain students who might have switched to two primary charter schools operated under the Achievement School District. The state-run campus at Hanley, managed by Aspire Public Schools, sits closer than the other Shelby County schools to which Dunbar students would have been reassigned.

“Some of the parents pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to put my kid on a bus. So my alternative may be to go to Aspire Hanley, which is around the corner,’” Hopson told reporters after the meeting. “That wasn’t an … alternative for me.”

Those concerns align with requests from school board members who have urged district administrators to track what happens to students when their schools are closed — whether they actually go to the new school they’re assigned to, or leave the district altogether.

Hopson still has a plan to guide the district. The next test will be moving ahead with the proposal to build and consolidate.

For now, Carnes Elementary will be the only school closed this spring following the school board’s vote on Tuesday night.

The other parts of Hopson’s plan will need funding approval before it comes to a school board vote. The superintendent has recommended replacing Goodlett and Alcy elementary schools and merging three others into the new buildings. That will require the school board to secure $49 million from the local funding body, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

The plan is in line with commissioners’ desire for the district to shorten the school system’s list of aging and costly school buildings.

This close-build-consolidate model is young in Memphis, with Westhaven Elementary School being the pioneer. But it has been a mostly popular solution thus far among residents and local officials.