Voices and choices

Change is coming, say Memphis school leaders as community meetings launch

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Educators and parents break into small groups Monday evening during a community meeting in Frayser organized by Shelby County Schools to explore the future of the district's schools.

Leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district kicked off a series of community meetings Monday by emphasizing the goal of getting input from Memphians on what makes a great school. But another goal that was unstated quickly became apparent: preparing Memphians for inevitable changes that will come as Shelby County Schools restructures itself to make the best use of shrinking resources.

Sharon Griffin speaks at the Frayser meeting.
iZone chief Sharon Griffin speaks in Frayser.

“Unfortunately, we may have to decrease some of our schools so that we can maximize the use of those resources,” said Sharon Griffin, regional superintendent of the district’s Innovation Zone, speaking to a crowd of about 80 people in Frayser. “And even though many of our schools are showing academic gains, some of those schools will still have to merge.”

To read our coverage on Memphis school closures, visit here.

Monday’s meetings at Frayser and Cordova were the first of nine gatherings — one in each school board district — as the district prepares for seismic shifts three years after a historic school merger and two years after the exit of six municipalities creating their own school systems. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said Shelby County Schools will need to close up to 24 schools over the next five years — a plan that will be guided in large part by a year-long facilities study scheduled for release later this month.

School board member Stephanie Love clarified Monday evening that the study will serve as a status report of buildings and enrollment and will not include specific recommendations on which schools to close, merge or refigure.

The gatherings are part of the district’s effort to thaw community relations when it comes to input for big decisions, particularly related to closing schools.

“A lot of times we don’t give you the opportunity to give input. We make decisions and then we come back and tell you to live with it,” Love told attendees. “Well, we’re going to dispel all of that. Moving forward, before we make any decisions, we’re going to meet with the community. We’re going to talk to the community. We’re going to listen to the community.”

The crowd at the Frayser meeting was comprised mostly of teachers and central office staff, along with some parents and community members. They were broken into small groups to discuss what makes a high-quality school and how to make existing schools better.

The feedback will be incorporated into recommendations to the school board about which schools will be left standing and how to increase enrollment amid shrinking resources and increased competition from charter schools and other options.

School librarian Judy Walker offers input during her small group gathering.
Northaven school librarian Judy Walker offers input during her small group gathering.

“I’m here to use my voice to stand up for education and for my school and school community,” said Judy Walker, a librarian at Northaven Elementary School. “Change is coming, and decisions will have to be made.”

Some were skeptical about whether or not their voices will matter in the end.

“You have to be assured they are going to incorporate what I say in what you’re going to do,” said Leonard Smith, a retired educator. “But that hasn’t been a part of this administration.”

“It’s a good start if something’s done with the information,” said Sharon Fields, family coordinator at Libertas School of Memphis, a school under the state-run Achievement School District. “If it’s not utilized, it’s a smokescreen.”

Robocalls notified faculty and families about the community meetings as the district announced the dates last week on its website, though no specifics were provided about which schools could be on the chopping block.

The school system also released a video Monday outlining the district’s strengths, challenges and choices as part of its “Great Schools, Greater Community” campaign. Narrated by Hopson, the video invites the community to start “thinking differently” to make the most of limited resources.

Love reiterated that a new way of thinking must happen to address shrinking enrollment, decreasing funding, low-performing schools and a large number school buildings with dire capital needs.

“Reality is something is going to have to give to improve the education of our children,” she said.

Pivot

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.