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.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 

Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.

Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”


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: