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.

Pivot

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.