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.

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: