moving on

As Memphis’ last public housing project closes, neighborhood schools and families scramble

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tiara Edmond (right) and her children Jamal, 16, and Joemaya, 9, stand outside their apartment in the Foote Homes housing project.

In the shadow of historic Booker T. Washington High School, Foote Homes has been home to tens of thousands of students to attend downtown Memphis schools since the 1940s.

But that’s about to change.

The 46-acre development is the city’s last remaining public housing project and is due to close in September to make room for mixed-income housing, forcing the relocation of about 330 students.

The impact on three downtown schools, including the city’s first black public high school under segregation, is uncertain as Shelby County Schools begins its new school year next week. But the back-to-school timing of the transition, combined with confusion about the city’s relocation process and the lack of a school impact study, has school leaders bracing for more enrollment challenges in a district that already struggles to get students registered and starting school on time.

Only weeks before her son was hoping to start his junior year at Booker T. Washington, Foote Homes resident Vanessa Nelson was still trying to figure out how to get a housing voucher to relocate. Asked where her son Elliott would be attending school next year, Nelson was blunt.

“I don’t know,” she said, while walking to a recent neighborhood housing fair.

Many Foote Homes residents still were receiving their housing vouchers in late July, just as Shelby County Schools made its last big push to register for school. Families are supposed to be out by September, a month after the school year starts.

Booker T. Washington High School, where President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to graduates in 2011, stands to bear the brunt of the relocation impact, along with Downtown and LaRose elementary schools.

Booker T. Washington High School Principal Alishia Kiner
PHOTO: Katie Kull
Principal Alisha Kiner outside Booker T. Washington High School

Leaders of the 600-student high school, which had an enrollment of 561 last school year, have aggressively tried to address confusion over relocation by calling parents, hosting registration block parties, and keeping the school office open for registration during summer break.

“Even if they have to move and transfer, at least they haven’t missed a lot of school,” principal Alisha Kiner said this week. “We’ve been real pushy in that regard because we don’t want to lose kids.”

The efforts appear to be working. Just days before the first bell rings, registration numbers were actually up over the same time last year. Even so, Kiner expects to lose many Foote Homes students this fall, and she’s talking frequently with administrators at other schools where her kids might end up.

“If we’re going to meet kids, and we know they have issues when they have to move, then we just have to know how to support them. So part of that is not being selfish,” said Kiner, adding that dealing with high student mobility is a regular challenge for Memphis schools.

Shifting priorities

The razing of Foote Homes is part of the city’s decade-long effort to redevelop its South Main Historic District, which lies about a mile away in downtown Memphis. South Main includes a mosaic of shops, restaurants and art galleries anchored by the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It’s now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Foote Homes stands in stark contrast to the tourist-friendly district area. Built in the 1940s, the 420-unit development features rows of deteriorating brick apartments lining both sides of Danny Thomas Boulevard. Over the years, they’ve housed famous Memphians including civil rights activist Benjamin Hooks and Stax musician Rufus Thomas. Last renovated in the 1990s, the buildings have fallen into disrepair.

The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s to serve as low-income housing for African-American families.
PHOTO: Katie Kull
The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of low-income Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s.

The Foote Homes redevelopment plan — which includes the construction of 460 mixed-housing units and amenities such as green spaces and a fitness trail — has been beset by challenges. Earlier work to raze and redevelop several other Memphis housing projects had sapped most of the city’s federal grant money by the time leaders got to Foote Homes. That forced the city to seek additional funding for the $60 million-plus project and has contributed to the local community’s uncertainty about its future.

This spring, residents finally received their 90-day notices to leave the public housing project, but most opted to wait until they had a voucher in hand to start looking for a new place to live. It wasn’t until late July that the last of them had received a voucher.

“We’re not saying they have to be out by any specific date, but we’d like them to be out by September,” said Dorian Jenkins, interim director of the Memphis Housing Authority, adding that demolition will start “as soon as all the families are out.”

Throughout the summer, Foote Homes has been a neighborhood in transition. On a recent sweltering summer day, Housing Authority staff could be seen inspecting empty units and clearing out others while children played outside. Many apartments were still occupied.

Across the street, Streets Ministries has continued to maintain services for Foote Homes kids at its downtown site.

“I think it’s all been pretty muddy,” director Latoya McCutcheon said of the relocation.

“And I don’t want to say that they didn’t do a good job of preparing the families. I just think there was a disconnect between what will actually happen and what you should do to prepare for that transition. Something wasn’t communicated to the point where the residents actually understood that they would have to be out by September. Because of that, a lot of the families are just kind of left in chaos,” she said.

Dropping the ball

The Foote Homes relocation coincided with a change in leadership at the Housing Authority as former director Robert Lipscomb stepped down in late August 2015. Lipscomb had spearheaded the city’s efforts to tear down and redevelop its public housing and had been lauded by school leaders for his organization and communication in previous relocations.

“To his credit, Robert Lipscomb was focused on some of the legacy schools,” school Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a June interview on a Funky Politics podcast. “But obviously when he resigned, I don’t think anybody has picked up the ball on that.”

Hopson said Shelby County Schools was largely left out of the Foote Homes planning as the project began to gain traction and relocation deadlines were set. “There was no comprehensive plan,” he said.

Chris Caldwell, whose school board district encompasses Foote Homes and Booker T., expressed surprise that the relocation was moving forward. “It hasn’t come before the board, so I would hope there would be in communication with the district,” he said.

Children snack on donuts at a housing fair at Booker T. Washington High School in late July in an effort to relocate families from the Foote Homes housing project.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Children snack on donuts at a housing fair at Booker T. Washington High School in late July in an effort to relocate families from the Foote Homes.

By default, the district has taken on a more reactive role with Foote Homes residents, waiting until they’ve found their new homes before helping register their students for school. “Once they’ve identified where they want to live, it’s our job to help to make sure that they’re ready for Aug. 8,” said spokeswoman Natalia Powers, adding that residents can relocate within a 50-mile radius.

That could further drain the district of students. Shelby County Schools already has thousands of empty seats due to decades of declining enrollment.

Foote Homes resident Tiara Edmond, a mother of two children, said her family was open to a move and a change of schools from KIPP Memphis Collegiate charter schools. But by the end of July when she hadn’t received her housing voucher, she decided to send her kids back to KIPP. Edmond has a car and said she could drive her kids to their current school, no matter where her family ends up living.

Other schools in the Foote Homes community already have been impacted.

Moving Ahead School of Scholars Learning Academy, a K-3 charter school that operated in the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, closed in June after only one year of operation due to declining enrollment — and the expectation of even fewer students next year. Leaders opted to surrender their charter in hopes of reopening another school in the future to serve low-income families. But their hearts are still in downtown neighborhoods, including Foote Homes.

“The kids were awesome — I loved every moment of it,” said principal Lorene Essex, explaining that the 60-student school and small classes fostered a family-like environment.

”The families were wonderful and loving to work with. I’m going to miss them very much.”

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.

Achievement School District

The enrollment problems that plagued ASD schools in turmoil? They’re not unique.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School's band performs during the Memphis charter school's opening ceremony last fall. Kirby, which is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, is one of 17 schools in Tennessee's Achievement School District with enrollment under 70 percent.

When leaders of Gestalt announced they were backing out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district, they pinned the decision on low enrollment — and some charter operators were quick to paint the problem as unique.

Then KIPP told the same story a month later when it announced plans to exit University Middle, another Memphis school in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014,” KIPP leaders said in a statement last December.

But the two charter operators hardly faced unusual enrollment pressure. A Chalkbeat analysis found half of the ASD’s 33 schools have faced deep enrollment challenges.

Seventeen schools — 15 in Memphis and two in Nashville — enroll fewer than 70 percent of the students they were designed to serve. Fifteen of the ASD’s 25 takeovers also have fewer students today than when they were controlled by the local district.

The findings suggest that overhauling struggling schools by giving them new management, the ASD’s high-stakes turnaround strategy, does little to counteract local demographic pressure. Across much of Memphis, home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, the school-age population has been falling for years.

“The cloud over the work in Memphis is there are too many buildings for the number of students,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. He noted that Shelby County Schools faces similar challenges.

But that realization was still in the future in 2011, when the ASD was laying the groundwork to take over its first low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators who promised to boost test scores dramatically.

At the time, the assumption was that improving a school would draw more neighborhood families to enroll. But that has happened in only about 40 percent of the ASD’s schools in Memphis. Most have seen their enrollment decline.

At Westside Achievement Middle School, for example, the number of students dropped from 535 to 339 after its takeover in 2012 as part of the ASD’s first portfolio of schools.

The trend was the same at Wooddale Middle, which has gone from 714 to 473 students in the two years that the school has been under management by Green Dot Public Schools.

The outlook was better at Memphis Scholars’ Florida-Kansas Elementary School, which has had a slight increase in enrollment since 2014, the last year of local governance by Shelby County Schools. Even so, the elementary school is operating at just 40 percent capacity.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents’ concerns in January at Gestalt’s Klondike Elementary, which will close this spring due to low enrollment.

ASD officials say they are paying closer attention to the school-age population in Memphis. They now plan to scrutinize enrollment projections when charter operators submit their budgets, with an eye toward census data and neighborhood housing trends. They also have a clear message for operators: “Don’t bank on a huge enrollment growth to sustain your model,” White said.

Charter operators are generally accustomed to recruiting students from across school zones. But in Tennessee, the challenges posed by demographic shifts have been exacerbated by strict enrollment rules for the ASD’s schools and turf battles with the local district.

State law limits to 25 percent the number of students who can come from outside their neighborhood to an ASD school. Until 2015, the schools weren’t allowed to admit any out-of-neighborhood students, while schools run by Shelby County Schools can accept students from anywhere in the district if they have extra space.

Allison Leslie, superintendent for Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, said her schools could attract more students if the state allowed them to.

“That is limiting for us, something I would like to see change,” she said about enrollment restrictions under state law. “Students and families in Memphis should be able to select whatever school they want to attend in Memphis. Currently it is really confusing for families based on the enrollment restrictions that exist for ASD schools specifically.”

ASD schools aren’t the only ones fighting for students. In the last five years, Shelby County Schools has closed 20 under-enrolled schools, and the district plans to shutter more in the near future. Low enrollment is spottier in Nashville, where the city’s population is booming.

Shelby County Schools hasn’t taken the ASD’s expansion in Memphis lying down. In recent years, the local district has aggressively recruited and rezoned to stem the tide of students and funding moving to the state-run district. In the most high-profile case, an entire school was reconfigured to retain students bound for the ASD. Charter operators, including Gestalt, also have complained that the local district withheld student information, hampering their efforts to sign kids up.

“I think what ASD operators have faced is being the new kids on the block in their mission to serve those neighborhood schools,” White said. “They have essentially had to build out from scratch in terms of communication with students and building community partnerships that assist in family and student outreach.”

Enrollment challenges in Memphis shouldn’t have been a surprise to charter operators, according to Dirk Tillotson, founder of Great School Choices, which supports community-based charter school development.

“That is something that is fairly predictable,” said Tillotson, who is based in Oakland, Calif., another urban school district with declining enrollment. “You’ve got to be financially sustainable in this work. If you don’t get that basic step down, you won’t be able to serve your kids.”

Below are two tables detailing enrollment at the ASD’s 33 schools. The first compares each school’s 2016-17 enrollment to its “programmatic capacity,” or the number of students that academic programs were designed to serve.

The second table compares enrollment this year to enrollment before their ASD takeover. Schools that were not takeovers but started from scratch are noted as “new starts.”

ASD enrollment and capacity

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CAPACITY
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 30.7%
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 32.2%
Wooddale Middle 473 39.7%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 39.9%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 39.9%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 41.2%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 43.2%
Brick Church College Prep 338 48.3%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 50.9%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 52.5%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 53.9%
Fairley High 565 55.4%
Hillcrest High 483 55.5%
Kirby Middle 407 58.2%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 59.8%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 59.9%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 66.5%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 72.5%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 73.7%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 75.7%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 84.4%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 92.6%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 94.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 95.3%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 95.8%
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 100.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 111.2%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 113.4%
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 115.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 151%

Change in ASD enrollment since takeover

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 -59.5%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 -53%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 -36.6%
Wooddale Middle 473 -33.8%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 -33.6%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 -30.4%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 -30.2%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 -27.5%
Kirby Middle 407 -26.7%
Fairley High 565 -18.8%
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 -15.9%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 -13.4%
Brick Church College Prep 338 -10.8%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 -8.7%
Hillcrest High 483 -8.2%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 1.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 3.4%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 7.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 10.3%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 13.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 17.4%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 21.5%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 32.7%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 59.7%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 78.5%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 new start
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 new start
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 new start

*Three campuses within the ASD house two schools. For purposes of these tables, their enrollment figures are combined.

** Libertas is still phasing in grades at the elementary school. Currently, the school serves preK-2nd grade.