head count

Low enrollment a telltale for closing Memphis schools. Here’s what the numbers show.

PHOTO: Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal
Samone Nelson chases down a tennis ball as he leaves Northside High School last spring, before the high school was shuttered over the summer. Once one of the largest high schools in Memphis, Northside had just 190 students during its final year of operation.

While Memphis school leaders say academics should be the main driver behind closing schools as they seek to “right-size” the district in the next five years, a Chalkbeat analysis shows shrinking student enrollment has been a primary factor in shuttering 20 since 2012, two thirds of which had been on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools’ most recently closed school, for instance, had only 190 students last school year for a facility built for 1,128 students. Less than a decade earlier, Northside High School had more students than space — an enrollment that was six times this year’s final head count.

The vast majority of Memphis schools shuttered in recent years had 300 students or less during their final school year at an average of 44 percent of building capacity, compared with 91 percent across the district. (The chart at the bottom of this page tracks years of dwindling enrollment.)

The steady enrollment declines have meant that less than 5,000 students across Shelby County have been directly impacted by a school closing since 2012, a relatively low number out of a school system that educates some 100,000 students each year.

As Shelby County Schools prepares to release a report that will help guide conversation on closing up to 24 more schools in the next five years, Chalkbeat is examining three major criteria that has driven past closures. Those include poor academic performance, under-enrollment, and the cost of operating schools and maintaining aging buildings.

"It’s just like a business. You get money from the state per number of students. When the numbers don’t add up, that’s a problem."Melvin Burgess

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to tip the school closure equation toward academics — the same reform mindset used in New York City and Chicago in the last 15 years in shuttering hundreds of low-performing schools. But Hopson defaulted to the “kitchen sink” approach when talking with reporters last month about tough decisions facing some of the city’s historic schools.

“If you’ve got a school where the achievement is low, where the utilization is low, where there is very high deferred maintenance, then those schools obviously will be up for consideration (for closure),” Hopson said before a community meeting about the future of East High School.

Shelby County Schools says it needs to close more schools. Here are 25 that are at risk.

Enrollment is tied to both funding and academics. Sufficient numbers of students are critical to generating funds and providing the scale for services needed to lift achievement. The fewer the students, the less state money allocated to the district.

“It’s just like a business,” said Melvin Burgess, chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding agent for Shelby County Schools. “You get money from the state per number of students. When the numbers don’t add up, that’s a problem. When schools lack staff or resources, you’re cheating the kids.”

Shelby County’s enrollment challenges stem from decades of population decline and migration from many black and impoverished neighborhoods in Memphis. Public schools have usually been the last to leave, said school board Chairman Chris Caldwell.

“We’re not the canary in the coal mine,” Caldwell said. “We’re the last miner out.”

Most closures have been in the South Memphis/Whitehaven area, with some in North Memphis — consistent with trends showing higher rates of population decline in those zip codes than the city as a whole, according to John Zeanah, deputy director of the newly formed Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.

For more than a year, Shelby County Schools has been analyzing its bloated facilities footprint to determine how best to shrink the district. That report is scheduled for release this fall but will not include recommendations. District leaders also are working with city planners who are developing Memphis’ first strategic plan since 1981, a blueprint to guide the city’s growth during the next 25 years.

Memphians seem to want a more intentional approach, including thinking twice before closing historic neighborhood schools that the district may need again.

“(What happens if) the population in the neighborhood changes, as so many Memphis neighborhoods are?” asked Alvin Payne, a 1972 alum of Carver High School, closed this year after 59 years of serving Memphis’ Riverview neighborhood. “Is our school system collaborating with city planners or the housing authority? Are we closing schools in places where we’ll need another school in 10 years? I think that’s exactly what we’re doing in south Memphis.”

Here is the breakdown on enrollment of schools closed since 2012, including during the school years leading up to closure:

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede also contributed to this report.


Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.

Slowing down

Vote on Memphis school closures, construction won’t come until new year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents and students from Knight Road Elementary School protest a proposal that would shutter their school during a board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposal to build, close and consolidate schools won’t get a vote from school board members until January at the soonest.

The first vote, which could have happened as early as next week, was delayed Tuesday night after school board members agreed that more time is needed for community discussion. Hopson wants to close seven schools and build three others to consolidate students and shutter aging buildings within Shelby County Schools.

Hopson, meanwhile, urged timely action to secure funding for construction. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the funding agent for local schools, have expressed support of Hopson’s plan and encouraged the school board to move ahead.

Hopson called the overhaul the “first phase” of efforts to “right-size” the district based on its facilities study that has been in the works for more than a year.

Under Hopson’s proposal, the district would replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing five elementary schools — Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — and consolidating those students in the three new buildings. Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools also would be closed.

The superintendent was peppered with questions ranging from the cost of revamping transportation routes to the timing of community meetings.

“We need clear explanation around why certain schools were picked (for new construction) over others,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes Goodlett and Alcy schools. “That’s the No. 1 concern I’m hearing from parents: Why was this campus picked over mine?”

Hopson unveiled his plan on Nov. 16, calling it a first step in addressing quality, efficiency and equity for Memphis students and communities. He emphasized that six of the buildings he wants to close are among the 15 least efficient facilities in Shelby County Schools, while the consolidations would eliminate 2,500 empty seats in the bloated district.

“Simply closing schools and often sending our most vulnerable kids to outdated facilities does nothing to improve student achievement,” Hopson said Tuesday.

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The new timetable would include information sessions in December and January with parents and community members of all impacted schools.

“Because of the timing of the holidays, we want to make sure we get a critical mass out to those meetings,” said board member Shante Avant. “Especially since we have so many English-as-second-language learners impacted, we want to make sure we have great authentic community engagement.”

School board Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.

Hopson backed off of some elements of his proposal, particularly the rebuilding of Alcy Elementary. He said staff is working to determine if that land was the best place for the project.

The proposal drew a silent protest from about 50 parents and students from Knight Road Elementary, who held up signs urging board members not to close their school.

“Teachers told us our school would be closing,” said Sandra Perez, who brought her two children, ages 5 and 8, to the meeting. “I walk my babies to school. I can’t have them go further away. We want either our school to stay or for us to build a new school on our land.”

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.