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.

Tough talk

Hopson warns of ‘disheartening’ TNReady scores while board orders hearings on closing schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning that the state’s soon-to-be-released standardized test scores will be “disheartening” for Shelby County Schools and should galvanize the district to address “underutilized, poor-performing schools that have dire needs.”

The school board took that first step Tuesday evening by starting the process to close two Memphis schools and build two others. In all, Hopson is proposing to close seven schools and build three under his plan released last month.

The board quietly approved the actions after more than 20 community members spoke against Hopson’s plan amid a standing-room-only crowd.

Community meetings will begin next week on the proposed closures of Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools. The district also will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for funding to construct buildings to replace Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools.

Hopson tied the need to reshape Tennessee’s largest school system to upcoming TNReady test scores, which the State Department of Education is expected to release by next week.

“When I listen to the crowd, I hear ‘Close those schools, just don’t close my school,’” Hopson said. “Everyone has reason for why they don’t want certain action to happen, and I respect that. At the end of the day, we have 25,000 more seats than students. There has to be some action around right-sizing the district.”  

State officials have been warning for more than a year that test scores likely will go down under Tennessee’s new assessment, and they did. Last month, the Tennessee Department of Education released statewide TNReady scores showing that the vast majority of the state’s high school students aren’t ready for college based on the state’s rigorous new test and tougher grading scale. The upcoming scores will provide a closer look at the performance of individual districts and schools.

School closures require two votes by the school board, which is scheduled to take up the closures of Dunbar and Carnes again in January or February.

Specifically, the proposal would close Dunbar and consolidate those students in Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools. The closure of Carnes would fold those students into the Bruce and Downtown schools.

“Dunbar is a neighborhood school and the only elementary school in Orange Mound that provides public education,” student Khamari McElroy told the board. “It would be hard to move on, leaving friends and teachers who care so much about us. Our principal and teachers provide excellent lessons. We hear ‘failure is just not an option’ every day.”

Hopson’s plan involves not only closing seven elementary schools — Dunbar, Carnes, Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — but building three new ones to replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle.

Lanna Byrd, a veteran teacher at Knight Road, told the board that building new schools isn’t a bad thing, but that she doesn’t understand why Knight Road’s campus was passed over for a new construction project. She said many of the school’s families live in poverty, making it hard to transport their children to schools further away.

“I’ve seen a strong bond developed between parents and students and feel that bond would be broken if this school is demolished,” Byrd said.

Hopson has urged timely action by the school board so that the district could secure funding for new construction. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the funding agent for local schools, have expressed support of Hopson’s plan and encouraged the school board to move ahead.

Next week’s community meetings are set for:

  • Carnes Elementary — Dec. 12, 4:30 p.m.
  • Dunbar Elementary — Dec. 15, 6 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include community meeting dates and that the district will seek funding for new schools from the County Commission.


Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.