round one

Close, build, consolidate. Hopson’s massive overhaul would impact 13 Memphis schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said Shelby County Schools will need to close up to 24 schools in the next five years.

For months, Memphis school leaders have pledged a new approach to closing schools, based on data from a long-awaited building analysis, along with a community report from meetings with stakeholders across Shelby County.

On Wednesday, before the public release of either the analysis or the report, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented his recommendations to begin “right-sizing” the bloated school district. The massive overhaul would impact 13 schools and up to 4,600 students.

Under Hopson’s proposal, seven schools would be closed. Five of those would involve consolidations that would require building three new schools. The other two would be outright closures.

The consolidations would be similar to the recent project in South Memphis that opened a new Westhaven Elementary School to serve students in the Westhaven neighborhood, as well as those in two nearby schools that were closed.

The plan’s surprise rollout is a major deviation from Hopson’s original pledge to wait until a “footprint analysis” provides a snapshot of building needs before making recommendations on closing up to 24 schools over the next five years. The release of that analysis already has been delayed twice this fall, and no new release date has been announced.

Hopson said the stepped-up timeline is to ensure the district can secure funding from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to begin construction on the new schools in time for openings in 2019. He called his plan a “no-brainer,” noting that it would eliminate six of the district’s 15 school buildings in most need of maintenance, as well as 2,500 empty seats. He also characterized his recommendations as separate from the conversation around the district’s long-term plan for school closures and consolidations of low-performing, under-enrolled schools with high maintenance costs.

“We need to take some actions that, regardless of what the surveys say, the data suggests that you have kids in the building and the building is in bad shape, you can send kids to a better-performing school. I don’t want to necessarily wait on decisions like that,” Hopson told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting.

Specifically, Hopson is recommending these changes, which would require approval from the school board:

  • Close Dunbar Elementary and rezone students into Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools;
  • Close Carnes Elementary and rezone students into Downtown and Bruce elementary schools;
  • Build a new Goodlett Elementary, demolish its current building, and bring in students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools. Knight Road also would be demolished.
  • Build a new Alcy Elementary, demolish its current building, and bring in students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools, which would be demolished or sold.
  • Build a new Woodstock Middle, demolish its current building, and create a K-12 school with Lucy and Northaven elementary schools. Those two schools would be demolished, sold or repurposed. E.E. Jeter K-8 students would be rezoned to the new Woodstock school beginning in the ninth grade instead of the current Trezevant and Bolton high schools.

School board members will discuss Hopson’s plan at their Nov. 29 work session and cast their initial vote on Dec. 6. School closures require two separate votes, along with several community hearings.

Board members didn’t comment on the proposal during Wednesday’s committee meeting but have acknowledged the need to right-size the district, which started off the school year with 22,000 empty seats.

The consolidations, which include building new schools, follow the model used recently at the new Westhaven Elementary school, suggesting that this is the emerging model for closing schools in the future. This fall, the district opened Westhaven and enrolled students from two nearby schools — Fairley and Raineshaven — that closed last year because of low enrollment and poor academic performance. Westhaven also was placed into Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s program for overhauling low-performing schools.

Hopson also has proposed folding Sheffield and Alcy elementary schools into the iZone. If approved, both schools would see extended school days and a major overhaul of staffing — two hallmarks of the district’s school turnaround program.

Correction, Nov. 16, 2016: This story has been updated to show that students leaving E.E. Jeter K-8 would be rezoned to Woodstock K-12 under Hopson’s plan. A previous version incorrectly reported that E.E. Jeter would be closed.

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.