At a crossroads

Idea to turn East High into all-optional “T-STEM” school met with community resistance

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
East High School teachers and alumni talk with Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez (center) about the Memphis school's future.

Once a premier Memphis school with more than 2,000 students, East High School is now under-enrolled, underperforming, and could face closure or state intervention if Shelby County Schools can’t reinvent the Midtown institution, leaders of Shelby County Schools told a neighborhood meeting Monday evening.

More than 100 people gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear district administrators cast their vision of what a revitalized East High could look like.

Leaders outlined a proposal to turn East into an all-optional school focused on T-STEM: transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. The change, which would be phased in over four years beginning next school year, means East eventually would cease being a neighborhood school, and its students would be selected based on academics and attendance.

But the crowd, comprised mainly of alumni and faculty, was mostly skeptical of the idea, especially if it means busing neighborhood kids elsewhere.

“If this school dies, that affects the whole zip code, the whole town,” said Timothy Harris, an East alum who works for the city of Memphis. “You can’t send these kids to Melrose. … That’s a rival school. This is an anchor. You think you have a gang problem now?”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the crowd that the district faces hard choices in the face of shrinking enrollment and funding. The challenges and choices are the subject of a series of community meetings that kicked off this week and could lead to the closure of up to 24 schools over the next five years.  (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk, including East.)

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sits with other members of his staff in East's auditorium.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and several staff members sit with school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones during the meeting.

“I don’t want to have a conversation about closing East, or a conversation about East being taken over by the state,” said Hopson, referencing that the state-run Achievement School District has authority to take control of schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “I want to talk tonight about transforming East and making East the shining star again of Shelby County Schools.”

East has offered an optional engineering program since 1984, but the once-robust program has dwindled to just 35 students. The entire school’s enrollment is just over 500 students in a building designed to accommodate 2,000.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez presented the district’s proposal, based largely on its application last spring for a $6 million federal grant aimed at boosting East’s STEM focus. The district didn’t win the grant, but administrators say the plan, including an emphasis on transportation logistics, is still the best course of action to revitalize East. It would connect the school to local transportation and delivery powerhouses such as FedEx, which has agreed to partner with East under its T-STEM model, Ramirez said.

Community members had a lot of questions for presenters, including why the district gradually eliminated classes under its once-thriving vocational-technology program. East once provided instruction in mechanics, woodshop, welding and printing. Now, culinary arts is the only one left.

Cheronda Thompson, a 1996 alumna, said East’s “vo-tech” program was pivotal to her education.

“Once the vo-tech programs started to leave, the kids left,” Thompson said. “STEM isn’t new to East, but it used to be more hands-on. It prepared me to go on to college and major in engineering. I’m most concerned our neighborhood babies won’t get to benefit if they make these changes.”

While most of the community comments reflected skepticism about the T-STEM proposal, a few people in attendance expressed openness to the idea during small group breakout sessions and afterwards.

“I believe it’s a good thing for this school,” said Sean Adams, a sophomore at East. “… I know they don’t want to kick kids out of anything, but something’s got to change.”

District spokeswoman Natalia Powers said after the meeting that leaders will consider the community’s input. Leaders will have to make a decision during the next few months since the proposal calls for launching the freshman class of the T-STEM program for the 2017-18 school year.

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.