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.

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.