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.

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

construction zone

New Memphis school buildings get green light on design funds

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County leaders took the first step Monday toward rebuilding two Memphis elementary schools by approving $1.5 million for design work.

Early on, the Board of Commissioners signaled support for the new construction and consolidation proposed last fall by Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. The plan is designed to invest in existing schools while also reducing the district’s overall footprint and addressing expensive aging buildings.

The heftier price tag to construct the schools, which Hopson estimates at $43.2 million, will be considered by county leaders after the school board approves the district’s budget later this month.

The new Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools could open as early as fall 2018. Both schools would remain open as the new buildings are constructed on another part of the property.

The school board has not approved closing the schools meant to feed into the new buildings, but members have expressed support for the plan.

The new Alcy would also serve students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools as those buildings are demolished. The new Goodlett would include students from Knight Road Elementary, which would be demolished, along with some students from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools.