Aging buildings

Analysis: High maintenance costs drive latest proposed school closings in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
School lets out last week at Goodlett Elementary, an overcrowded school built in 1964. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to replace Goodlett with a new building under his latest facilities plan.

Goodlett Elementary School needs a new boiler. It needs a new roof too, just a few of the costly upgrades on a long list of maintenance needs totaling about $4 million.

In fact, according to data released in May, the southeast Memphis school, built in 1964, is the least efficient building in Shelby County Schools, making it long overdue for district leaders to step in.

Last week, they did, as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a proposal to build a new Goodlett, along with new buildings for Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle. The construction would be part of a significant overhaul that would close seven schools, some of whose students would be shifted to the new buildings.

Hopson told school board members last Wednesday that costly maintenance issues were the key driver in his first volley at addressing the district’s aging and bloated facilities footprint, which needs to shed up to 24 schools in the next five years.

That’s contrary to his earlier pledge to focus on improving academics when making such decisions, putting enrollment and aging buildings as secondary considerations.

Hopson argues that this first volley isn’t part of the bigger discussion to come about closing schools, which will focus primarily on academics. “These are schools where you have some of the highest (maintenance needs) in the city and where it’s just inefficient to operate these schools,” he said.

Of the three construction/consolidation projects proposed by Hopson, Goodlett is the outlier. It’s mostly about the high cost of building maintenance, while the other two projects are more aligned with all three criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to rejigger its schools: academics, under-enrollment and maintenance.

Under Hopson’s plan, the new Goodlett Elementary would open as early as 2018 and would absorb students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell. Current buildings for Goodlett and Knight Road would be demolished.

While neither Goodlett or Knight Road have a glowing academic performance, both schools are not in danger of state takeover like about a dozen others in the city. In 2014, Goodlett was even recognized by the state as a “reward school” for academic growth.

Instead of being under-enrolled, Goodlett and Knight Road are overcrowded, with nearly twice as many students as the buildings were designed for. Knight Road, built in 1959, also needs a lot of work. It’s ranked the district’s eighth least efficient building.

By contrast, Woodstock, which would be rebuilt and reconfigured into a K-12 school in rural northwest Memphis, is in danger of state takeover because of poor student test scores. It’s severely under-enrolled and needs maintenance work, though it’s not considered among the district’s most inefficient buildings.

With its new building, Woodstock would take in students from Lucy and Northaven elementary schools. Northaven is in danger of dropping to the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and is also under-enrolled. It has about $2.2 million in deferred maintenance needs. Lucy is also a low-performing school, though not low enough to provoke state intervention. It is under-enrolled as well, with $2.2 million worth of deferred maintenance.

Alcy, which would be rebuilt on the same property, is a low-performing school in danger of state takeover. It’s under-enrolled and has high building needs.

Under the Alcy consolidation, Hopson proposes to close Magnolia and Charjean elementary schools and move those students to Alcy’s new building as early as 2018. Magnolia is a low-performing school that’s under-enrolled and has relatively low building needs. Charjean is overcrowded, but rose to the level of urgency because of its high maintenance needs totaling $3.3 million. The 1950 school building ranks third in the district in inefficiency.

Hopson says his building proposals would make investments in communities that have been neglected for decades.

“We’ve got to start thinking about equity here in Memphis. And if you look at these communities, these are places where nobody has invested in a very long time,” he said. “Given the enrollment and conditions of the facilities, we want to move forward.”

But the proposals aren’t a done deal. The school board will review them at its Nov. 29 work session, and members will cast their first of two votes on the school closures Dec. 6. Several community meetings would follow. Hopson hopes to take the plans to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in December to ask for $15 million for each new school.

Picking his two children up from school last week at Goodlett Elementary, parent Jeremy Arris said his kids haven’t complained about the condition of their school building or overcrowding. He’s happy with the teachers and culture. And he’s OK with Hopson’s plan too, especially since his children wouldn’t have to move while a new school is being built.

“It’s fine with me,” Arris said. “I don’t want to send my kids anywhere else.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

construction zone

New Memphis school buildings get green light on design funds

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County leaders took the first step Monday toward rebuilding two Memphis elementary schools by approving $1.5 million for design work.

Early on, the Board of Commissioners signaled support for the new construction and consolidation proposed last fall by Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. The plan is designed to invest in existing schools while also reducing the district’s overall footprint and addressing expensive aging buildings.

The heftier price tag to construct the schools, which Hopson estimates at $43.2 million, will be considered by county leaders after the school board approves the district’s budget later this month.

The new Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools could open as early as fall 2018. Both schools would remain open as the new buildings are constructed on another part of the property.

The school board has not approved closing the schools meant to feed into the new buildings, but members have expressed support for the plan.

The new Alcy would also serve students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools as those buildings are demolished. The new Goodlett would include students from Knight Road Elementary, which would be demolished, along with some students from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools.