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.


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:

school closures

Hopson just backed away from closing one failing Memphis school. Here are three things to know.

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.”

For more than a year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has beat a steady drum about the need to reduce the number of empty classroom seats in Memphis by closing schools and reconfiguring Tennessee’s largest district.

So many were taken by surprise on Tuesday night when Hopson announced that he had changed his mind about shuttering Dunbar Elementary, one of the first schools targeted in Hopson’s plan to close, build and consolidate schools.

School closures are nothing new in Memphis. But the newest round proposed last fall promised to be different. For the first time, Hopson and his team had used a comprehensive analysis of data to make their recommendations. Dunbar fit two of those criteria — low test scores and high building maintenance needs.

During the last week, however, a number of factors converged to change the fate for Dunbar, at least for the next year.

Here are three things to know now as Shelby County Schools moves forward with Hopson’s plan to right-size the district:

Hopson is showing a willingness to deviate from what the data says.

When considering which Memphis schools to close, three data points are factored in: low test scores, severe underenrollment, and high building maintenance costs.

Initially, Hopson said it was a “no brainer” to start by closing Dunbar and six other schools that fit some or all of those criteria.

But he took a second look after seeing a groundswell of community support around Dunbar from residents of Orange Mound, the historic African-American neighborhood that recently received a national heritage designation. So instead of closing the school based strictly on the data, Hopson used the school’s higher enrollment and the community support to justify new academic and capital investments.

“I have really heard you all loud and clear,” Hopson told Dunbar supporters before announcing he was tabling his recommendation. “And it’s not necessarily the words that I heard but it’s the actions behind the words that piqued my interest. You’ve got a committed community. And unlike other instances, … you don’t have (an enrollment) issue.”

Memphians have long complained that district leaders don’t listen to their concerns, while school leaders have often complained about a lack of parent and community involvement in many schools. Seeing Orange Mound’s outpouring of support for its last locally operated neighborhood school appeared to make the difference.

The district remains vigilant about retaining its students.

Dunbar is the only elementary school left in Orange Mound that’s operated by Shelby County Schools.

Keeping Dunbar open allows the local district to retain students who might have switched to two primary charter schools operated under the Achievement School District. The state-run campus at Hanley, managed by Aspire Public Schools, sits closer than the other Shelby County schools to which Dunbar students would have been reassigned.

“Some of the parents pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to put my kid on a bus. So my alternative may be to go to Aspire Hanley, which is around the corner,’” Hopson told reporters after the meeting. “That wasn’t an … alternative for me.”

Those concerns align with requests from school board members who have urged district administrators to track what happens to students when their schools are closed — whether they actually go to the new school they’re assigned to, or leave the district altogether.

Hopson still has a plan to guide the district. The next test will be moving ahead with the proposal to build and consolidate.

For now, Carnes Elementary will be the only school closed this spring following the school board’s vote on Tuesday night.

The other parts of Hopson’s plan will need funding approval before it comes to a school board vote. The superintendent has recommended replacing Goodlett and Alcy elementary schools and merging three others into the new buildings. That will require the school board to secure $49 million from the local funding body, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

The plan is in line with commissioners’ desire for the district to shorten the school system’s list of aging and costly school buildings.

This close-build-consolidate model is young in Memphis, with Westhaven Elementary School being the pioneer. But it has been a mostly popular solution thus far among residents and local officials.