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.

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: