Community voices

Did Hopson jump the gun on proposing more school closures? Some Memphians think so.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Memphians in Frayser attend a community meeting organized in October by Shelby County Schools. The district hosted nine meetings to seek public input about what makes a good school.

Claudette Boyd was excited to have her voice heard at a community meeting in October to offer public input on the future of Shelby County Schools.

“Communities need stable schools,” she told district leaders that night. “Schools shouldn’t be graded solely on their test scores. Schools are the pillars of neighborhoods.”

A month later, Boyd said feels like her feedback was dismissed.

District leaders had promised to summarize public input from nine community meetings in a report that would help guide major decisions in a district with too many schools and too few students.

But on Wednesday, three weeks before the report’s expected release, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the first step in his plan to begin “right-sizing” Tennessee’s largest school district. The recommendations, which now go to the school board, include closing seven schools, some of which would be consolidated into three new schools, and numerous rezonings. In all, 13 schools and up to 4,600 students would be impacted.

Beyond the community meetings, Hopson had promised that his administration would consider a year-long building analysis when recommending changes to the district’s footprint, which he has said must shrink by up to 24 schools over the next five years. The analysis, whose public release has been delayed twice this fall, is still under wraps.

Hopson’s plan includes two outright closures: Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools. Dunbar is the only district-run school in Memphis’ Orange Mound community. If the school board approves the change, its students would be rezoned to Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools.

“There were a lot of Dunbar teachers at that meeting speaking up for their school,” said Boyd, a community activist in Orange Mound. “It crushes the community spirit, to keep feeling like what we want or feel is right doesn’t actually matter.”

Memphians have lamented for decades about local school administrators engaging them about closing schools only after they’ve already made their decisions. The top-down process has been a sore spot because, along with churches, those schools are often the hubs of community life in Memphis. When schools are closed, blight generally follows and students must travel further to get to their new schools.

Hopson told reporters Wednesday that his initial plan is a “no-brainer” due to costly maintenance needs at those schools. The timeline is necessary, he said, in order to get funding from county commissioners to build new schools. He characterized his recommendations as separate from the larger conversation to come on the long-term plan for overhauling the district’s facility footprint.

School board member Miska Clay Bibbs said Hopson’s announcement, delivered during a school board committee meeting, is intended to build in more time to talk through the plan. The school board had asked for a longer runway in the future after receiving surprise recommendations last spring to close Carver and Northside high schools at the end of the school year. These recommendations are different from Carver and Northside, she said.

“We were absolutely upset about that (last school year),” Bibbs said Thursday. “I think (Hopson) is honoring his word. It’s a lot of things at play in order to make that happen and you have to do that in a timely manner. You can’t wait to the last minute.”

Bibbs said the community meetings were intended to kick off an ongoing conversation around what makes a better school — not to focus solely on which schools should close or stay open.

Edward Vaughn, who heads the alumni association for recently closed Carver High School, disagrees. He says the superintendent shouldn’t announce potential closures ahead of the public release of the facilities study.

“We think we deserve to see the full picture,” Vaughn said. “We don’t think the superintendent is being very transparent because we have heard that nothing would happen before this analysis. We question the urgency. Why now? Why not have the full analysis out there before proposing more school closures?”

School board members are scheduled to discuss Hopson’s plan at their Nov. 29 work session, and to cast their first of two votes on the proposal on Dec. 6.

shift

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.

Slowing down

Vote on Memphis school closures, construction won’t come until new year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents and students from Knight Road Elementary School protest a proposal that would shutter their school during a board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposal to build, close and consolidate schools won’t get a vote from school board members until January at the soonest.

The first vote, which could have happened as early as next week, was delayed Tuesday night after school board members agreed that more time is needed for community discussion. Hopson wants to close seven schools and build three others to consolidate students and shutter aging buildings within Shelby County Schools.

Hopson, meanwhile, urged timely action to secure funding for 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.

Hopson called the overhaul the “first phase” of efforts to “right-size” the district based on its facilities study that has been in the works for more than a year.

Under Hopson’s proposal, the district would replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing five elementary schools — Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — and consolidating those students in the three new buildings. Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools also would be closed.

The superintendent was peppered with questions ranging from the cost of revamping transportation routes to the timing of community meetings.

“We need clear explanation around why certain schools were picked (for new construction) over others,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes Goodlett and Alcy schools. “That’s the No. 1 concern I’m hearing from parents: Why was this campus picked over mine?”

Hopson unveiled his plan on Nov. 16, calling it a first step in addressing quality, efficiency and equity for Memphis students and communities. He emphasized that six of the buildings he wants to close are among the 15 least efficient facilities in Shelby County Schools, while the consolidations would eliminate 2,500 empty seats in the bloated district.

“Simply closing schools and often sending our most vulnerable kids to outdated facilities does nothing to improve student achievement,” Hopson said Tuesday.


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The new timetable would include information sessions in December and January with parents and community members of all impacted schools.

“Because of the timing of the holidays, we want to make sure we get a critical mass out to those meetings,” said board member Shante Avant. “Especially since we have so many English-as-second-language learners impacted, we want to make sure we have great authentic community engagement.”

School board Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.

Hopson backed off of some elements of his proposal, particularly the rebuilding of Alcy Elementary. He said staff is working to determine if that land was the best place for the project.

The proposal drew a silent protest from about 50 parents and students from Knight Road Elementary, who held up signs urging board members not to close their school.

“Teachers told us our school would be closing,” said Sandra Perez, who brought her two children, ages 5 and 8, to the meeting. “I walk my babies to school. I can’t have them go further away. We want either our school to stay or for us to build a new school on our land.”

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.