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.”

countdown

Less than two weeks before school starts, only half of Memphis students registered

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A family signs up students for the upcoming school year at a Shelby County Schools registration event at the Memphis Zoo.

Clipboard in hand, Tangela Blanks talks up the importance of registering early for school to families as they enter the Memphis Zoo on a “free Tuesday” this summer.

A few families pause to sign up but, on this hot afternoon, workers easily outnumber registrants at computer-lined registration tables under a shady overhang.

As with past years, it’s been a slow build across the summer to get Memphis students registered for Shelby County Schools before the Aug. 7 start of class.

With less than two weeks of summer break left, only about half of the anticipated 90,000 students have registered. That’s better than this time last year, when only about 30,000 had signed up. And it’s despite a two-week July shutdown of the district’s online registration system for scheduled maintenance. But the total still lags as Tennessee’s largest district tries to anticipate staffing needs without solid numbers to work with.

Late school registration is a chronic issue for public schools in Memphis, where poverty and a high rate of student mobility are among the challenges. Many parents bring their children to school days and even weeks after classes begin.

The district has aggressively sought to accelerate the process by providing online registration since 2015 and holding a slew of out-in-the-community events at libraries, museums, community centers and festivals — anywhere where families will show up.

“We realize that oftentimes during the summer, registration is not on a parent’s mind, so we want to be visible and meet parents where they are,” said Angela Hargrave, who oversees attendance for the district. “We can be there to say, ‘Can we help you register? Have you gotten your child ready for school?’ It’s a good way to reach out to the community and provide information.”

Blanks said most families that she’s signed up are excited about the convenience and guidance. “Most of them have a lot of things going on,” she said. “Many are in the transition of moving, and this makes the transition smoother.”

Shelby County Schools has been shrinking gradually since the historic merger of city and county schools in 2013. The city’s education landscape has become increasingly splintered, including charter expansion under the state-run Achievement School District and the exodus of students to suburban school systems that broke off from the Memphis-headquartered district in 2014.

Last year’s enrollment was under 92,000 students for traditional schools and another 13,000 at 45 district-authorized charter schools.

While charter schools conduct their own registration drives, district leaders are confident that traditional registration will pick up in the final days of summer break. Last week alone, 5,000 parents registered. Next week, a Back 2 School Block Party is planned for Aug. 5 at the central office, complete with free food, games, immunizations and health screenings.

Getting physicals and the proper immunizations are among the biggest challenges to timely registration.
The district has partnered with community health agencies to bring on-site immunizations and health clinics to families.

Registrants also need a district-provided code and password to log on to the registration site.

Below is a district-produced promotional video about the importance of early registration.

student says

Here’s what New York City students told top state officials about school segregation

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students discussed attending racially isolated schools at the Board of Regents meeting.

New York state’s top policymakers are wading into a heated debate about how to integrate the state’s schools. But before they pick a course of action, they wanted to hear from their main constituents: students.

At last week’s Board of Regents meeting, policymakers invited students from Epic Theatre Ensemble, who performed a short play, and from IntegrateNYC4Me, a youth activist group, to explain what it’s like to attend racially isolated schools. New York’s drive to integrate schools is, in part, a response to a widely reported study that named the state’s schools — including those in New York City — as the most segregated in the country.

The Board of Regents has expressed interest in using the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to address this issue and released a draft diversity statement in June.

Here’s what graduating seniors told the Board about what it’s like to attend school in a segregated school system. These stories have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“I have never, ever had a white classmate.”

Throughout my years of schooling and going to school, I have never, ever had a white classmate. It’s something that now that I’m getting ready to go to college, it’s something to really think about, and I don’t think that we’re moving in the right direction. I went to the accepted student day at my college — I’m going to SUNY Purchase. I went there, and I’m being introduced into this whole new world that I never was exposed to.

It’s really a problem. I know I’m not the only one because I have family members and I spoke to some of my brothers and I’m like, “I have never encountered a white classmate in my whole life.” Just to show you how important [it is] to integrate the schools. Just so future kids don’t have to deal with that.

It wasn’t in my power for me to be able to have different classmates. I think in our school, we had one Asian girl, freshman year. She was there for literally like two days and she left so I have been limited in my school years to just African-Americans and Latinos.

So now that I’m getting ready to step out there, this is something I’ve never had to deal with. So the issue is something that’s really deep and near to my heart and now that I’m going to college I have to, you know, adapt. I’m sure it’s a whole different ball game.

— Dantae Duwhite, 18, attended the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, going to SUNY Purchase in the fall

***

“I saw how much of a community that school had.”

I first became involved in IntegrateNYC4me my junior year when we were having a school exchange between my school in Brooklyn [Leon M. Goldstein] and Bronx Academy of Letters.

When I went into the [school] exchange, I was really excited to see how different the other school would be. But when I got there, I saw how much of a community that school had and personally, I didn’t feel that in my school. My school is majority white and it’s just very segregated within the school, so [I liked] coming into [a different] school and seeing how much community they had and how friendly they are. They just say hi to each other in the hallways and everybody knows each other and even us. We went in and we’re like strangers and they were so welcoming to us and I know they didn’t have the same experience at our school. That really interested me and that’s how I got into the work.

If it weren’t so segregated, it could be so easy for all of us to have a welcoming community like the Bronx Letters students did.

— Julisa Perez, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, a screened high school in Brooklyn and will attend Brooklyn college in the fall

***

“They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment.” 

I also went on the exchange my junior and senior year. The first time I did it was my junior year and when I went to Bronx Letters, the first thing I noticed was how resources were allocated unfairly between our schools.

Because, at my school, we have three lab rooms:, a science lab, a chemistry lab and a physics lab. And at Bronx Letters, they never even had a lab room, they just had lab equipment. And I think it’s important to see that all New York City students are expected to meet the same state requirements. They’re expected to take the same Regents, yet they’re not given the same lab equipment and they’re not given the same resources. So I think it’s unfair to expect the same of students when they’re not given equitable resources. That is what I took away from it.

— Aneth Naranjo, 18, attended Leon M. Goldstein, will attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall