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.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

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.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: