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.

Zeroing in

Vote approaches on closing two Memphis schools, while cost of Hopson’s plan grows

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Memphis school leaders are moving forward with the first phase of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to reshape the district by closing, building and consolidating schools.

Board members for Shelby County Schools are scheduled Tuesday night to discuss Hopson’s proposal to shutter Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools, two of seven targeted in the latest recommended closures for the bloated district. A final vote is scheduled for Jan. 31.

In the meantime, the cost has grown for Hopson’s plan, which also calls for building new schools. And district leaders want some assurance that Shelby County commissioners are on board to approve the financing.

The estimated price tag is now $49 million to tear down five aging schools and consolidate students into two new ones — up from about $30 million when Hopson rolled out his plan in November. In a school system grappling with upkeep of aging buildings while its student population declines, that amount would consume about 65 percent of the district’s yearly ask for capital improvements.

Alcy Elementary School, which would absorb Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools, would cost about $25 million to replace. Goodlett Elementary School, which would absorb Knight Road Elementary, would cost about $24 million. Initially, Hopson had estimated $15 million each.

The third consolidation project, combining Lucy and Northaven into a new Woodstock K-12 school, won’t go before the board until next year.

Hopson hasn’t yet set a date to take his request to the commission but said last week that “all feedback I’ve gotten has been positive.” That aligns with commissioners’ initial reaction to Hopson’s plan last fall.

The school board’s scheduled vote next week will be the second and final one on closing Dunbar and Carnes.

Both elementary schools were built in the 1950s, both are costly to maintain, and both rank low on state tests. Carnes has seen a steady decline in enrollment, while Dunbar’s student population has been steady.

Closing the schools would save the district $1.2 million, according to staff reports on Dunbar and Carnes.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

another setback

With no one willing to run it, Klondike will be first to close in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents pick up their students at Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary. The school is likely to close after the Achievement School District was unable to find a new operator.

No one within the Achievement School District has stepped up to take over a school that lost its charter management — not even the network directly run by the turnaround district.

This means that Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary will likely close this year. The announcement from ASD officials on Thursday sets the ASD up for its first-ever closure — the latest in a string of bad news that hints at deep troubles for the state-run district.

Gestalt Community Schools, a local charter operator, said in October that it would pull out of Klondike Elementary and Humes Preparatory Academy Middle schools because it was struggling to enroll enough students to sustain operations.

Two operators expressed initial interest in taking over at Humes and one appears likely to apply formally to run that school. But none are willing to run Klondike — including the district’s own operator, Achievement Schools, which already runs five schools in Frayser.

“This decision is based on what the Achievement Schools has determined as their inability to offer its full level of support and service to students with the financial implications of a lower student enrollment,” Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, told parents and community members in an email Thursday revealing Klondike’s likely fate.

The setback provides another example of the ongoing challenges the charter operators within the Achievement School District face taking over neighborhood schools. A second operator, KIPP Memphis, announced this week that would also pull out of the South Memphis school it runs in the district because of enrollment struggles.

The ASD by design is comprised exclusively of low-performing schools in high-poverty areas, often with a dwindling school-age population. The state mostly restricts enrollment in ASD schools to neighborhood zoning, much like the traditional districts they once belonged to. That’s different from most charter schools nationwide, where operators are able to enroll students from anywhere in a city.

The ASD has also ruled out the possibility of Shelby County Schools reabsorbing the school, which the ASD took over in 2014 after years of poor performance. Shelby County Schools told the Memphis Daily News in October that it would “explore every possibility” of serving the students of Humes and Klondike.

“At this time it’s premature to speculate about what will happen with Klondike,” SCS spokeswoman Natalia Powers said in a statement. “SCS, however, commits to working with the ASD and impacted families to ensure students have the appropriate support.”

Both Gestalt and KIPP, which became the first charter operators to back out of turning around schools under its charge, cited low enrollment as their primary reason for exiting.

Frayser Community Schools, the second operator to show interest in Gestalt’s former schools, plans to submit an application, but only for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle. The ASD was originally unsure whether Frayser had the academic track record to be eligible, but gave them the green light to apply after state achievement scores came out last week.

Frayser isn’t certified to operate an elementary school, White said. He added that while Frayser is not necessarily committed to applying to run Humes, either, they have expressed interest. The application will be due in early January.

That leaves Klondike Elementary without an operator, meaning it would close at the end of this school year.

“As developments currently stand, students from Klondike Elementary School will be reassigned to a neighboring, higher performing school that will be identified through the collaboration of the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools,” White said.

Frayser Community Schools currently operates one school, MLK College Preparatory High, located about five miles north of Klondike and Humes. The CEO of Frayser Community Schools Bobby White, no relation to Bobby White of the ASD, said his ties to the community makes his charter organization a natural choice to take over Humes.

“We care about the community, have a model to sustain the student population, and have a tremendous track record for leading middle schools and connecting to the community,” Frayser’s White told Chalkbeat.

Frayser’s White said that they have met with some of the families at Humes, and the feedback about what Gestalt has done in the school has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They want to keep the things Gestalt is currently doing,” White said. “They love the principal and asked if he would be able to stay. They had researched us and were excited that we came to visit.”

The ASD’s next steps will be holding public meetings:

  • 5 p.m. Jan. 9 at Klondike Preparatory Academy, 1250 Vollintine Ave;
  • 5 p.m. Jan. 11 at Humes Preparatory Academy, 659 N. Manassas St.

Reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with comment from SCS.