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.”

diversity push

Denver Public Schools is identifying more students of color as highly gifted, but big disparities remain

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In the second year of an effort to provide students of color greater access to Denver Public Schools’ magnet programs for highly gifted students, white and Asian students continue to be over-identified and Hispanic and black students continue to be under-identified.

The district did see a small bump in the percentage of black students identified as highly gifted after testing this year. But the percentage of Hispanic students identified — after a sizable jump in the first year of universal testing — stayed flat.

In short, while Hispanic and black students make up 69 percent of students districtwide, they make up just 29 percent of the population identified as highly gifted by the district’s new universal testing system. Highly gifted students are a subset of gifted students, and in DPS are eligible for nine specialized magnet programs, including one at the highly sought-after Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

The lack of diversity in Denver’s highly gifted program reflects the difficulty school districts nationwide face in trying to ensure their gifted programs reflect the complexion of their populations.

In January, New York City officials launched a task force to investigate persistent inequities in gifted education there and last year debate sprung up in Maryland’s largest school district after a report on school choice recommended controversial changes to promote greater racial equity in its highly gifted magnet programs.

While experts say that gifted students are found among all racial and ethnic groups, schools’ identification practices have historically favored upper-income white students. Until recently, Denver’s identification system typically required in-the-know parents who could seek out special testing for their kids.

“We’re kind of digging out of having that application-driven process,” said Rebecca McKinney, director of the district’s gifted and talented department. “It’s going to take us quite a few years.”

Last year, DPS launched a universal screening program that tested every kindergarten, second- and sixth-grade student for giftedness.

This year, it has formalized a program called the “talent pool” that gives kids who weren’t identified as gifted — but could be later — access to gifted services.

With gifted services set aside for about 10 percent of students at a school, talent pool students are added at schools where smaller percentages of students are designated as gifted. The idea is to ensure that each talent pool reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the school.

McKinney said while the talent pool concept has existed in some form for years, now for the first time, students in the pools will be formally tracked to see how much growth they achieve and whether they end up getting officially identified as gifted.

Unlike highly gifted students, who are eligible for special magnet programs, gifted students in DPS receive extra services at their home schools.

Last year, after the first round of universal screening, district officials were heartened by increases in the proportion of Hispanic students identified as highly gifted. About 25 percent of students in that category were Hispanic, double their percentage in the highly gifted population the year before.

For black students, who make up about 13 percent of students districtwide, the first round of universal screening made almost no difference. They comprised 3 percent of the highly gifted pool — almost exactly the same as before universal screening began.

But things improved a bit this year, with about 5 percent of black students identified as highly gifted in the screening last fall.

“We’re still definitely not where we want to be,” McKinney said.

She said certain factors, such as low-income status or English-language learner status, can mask giftedness when students are screened. District officials have looked into having classroom teachers instead of gifted and talented teachers give the screenings because research shows students do better when they are familiar with the adult administering the assessment.

The district is also investing more in training for teachers and parents. Last August, the district brought in Joy Lawson Davis, a prominent advocate of diversity in gifted education, to provide teacher training.

Lawson Davis, a board member with the National Association for Gifted Children, will return in March for a training at Greenlee Elementary and an evening event focused on engaging parents as advocates for gifted children.

While Lawson Davis’s parent night will focus on black parents, McKinney said she plans to seek out speakers who can lead similar events for Hispanic parents.

Shrinking

It’s official. Achievement School District will close a second school in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

In the months since KIPP decided to pull out of one of its state-run charter schools, officials with Tennessee’s turnaround district have been publicly mum about what happens next, leaving most to believe the Memphis school will close at the end of the school year.

A top official with the Achievement School District now confirms that’s the plan.

The ASD is not seeking a successor to KIPP for Memphis University Middle School and “is not obligated to look for another operator,” said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

White noted that the South Memphis school was started from scratch — and is not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

University Middle thus becomes the second ASD charter school that will close under the 5-year-old turnaround district. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, a turnaround school also in Memphis, is already slated to shut down this spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulls out of the ASD completely. KIPP will continue to operate three other ASD schools in Memphis and four other charters through Shelby County Schools.

The confirmation of a second closure comes as state leaders are reexamining the ASD’s structure and purpose and proposing to curtail its ability to grow — even as the state-run district struggles with sustainability due to a lack of students in Memphis, where the bulk of its schools are located. A bill filed recently in the legislature would stop the ASD from starting new charter schools such as KIPP’s University Middle, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

The ASD was created as a vehicle to dramatically improve schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent but began authorizing charter organizations to start some new schools as well. The pending legislation, which is supported by leaders of both the State Department of Education and the ASD, would return the district to its original purpose.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

KIPP’s Memphis board cited low enrollment and a remote location when voting last December to pull out this spring from University Middle, which it opened in 2014. Its leaders have told parents they plan to merge the school with KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school located about nine miles away.

Even with KIPP’s departure, ASD officials had authority to continue to operate University Middle with another manager. However, the challenges with enrollment and location made that option highly unlikely.

The middle school is housed in the former White’s Chapel Elementary School building, which Shelby County Schools closed in 2013 with 181 students — more than KIPP was able to attract under the ASD.

Under-enrollment was also cited by leaders of Gestalt, a Memphis-based charter organization that announced last fall plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools. The state-run district has since found a new operator for one Gestalt school and confirmed last month that it plans to close the other.