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.”

Pivot

Hopson now wants to invest in struggling Memphis schools instead of just closing them

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

Declaring “we’ve learned a lot” in the last four years, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Tuesday said it’s time to make investments in Memphis’ lowest-performing schools after years of shuttering them.

He rolled out a new framework for determining how to do just that, starting with 11 schools — 10 of which are in the state’s bottom 10 percent — that soon will receive “treatment plans” to address academics, building needs and enrollment.

The plans will include components pulled from the Innovation Zone, the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Possibilities include additional instructional time, new faculty positions such as intervention support staff for high-need students, and beefed-up before- and after-school programs.

He declined to estimate a price tag for the proposed investments, but said they will be included in the district’s 2017-18 proposed budget, expected to be presented in the next month. The approach is scheduled to be discussed in more detail at Tuesday night’s school board work session.

“Our hope is that we’re able to invest in an unprecedented way and do it in a sustainable way,” Hopson told reporters during a morning press call.

The 11 schools on the “critical focus school list” are:

  • Alton Elementary
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hamilton Elementary
  • Hamilton Middle (iZone)
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Scenic Hills Elementary
  • Springdale Elementary
  • Trezevant High (iZone)
  • Westwood High (iZone)
  • Wooddale High.

Eight other schools already are receiving supports under Hopson’s recent plan to build, close and consolidate schools in the district.

The new framework arrives as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to bring a systematic and transparent approach to improving schools and shedding others in the bloated, mostly underperforming system. In the last year, leaders conducted a year-long facilities study and held community meetings across the county to figure out how best to right-size the district.

Hopson said his administration has been consumed with “trying to clear up a huge mess” left by the 2013 merger of city and county schools and the 2014 exit of six municipalities that created their own school systems. Four years in, the district has “stabilized,” he said.

“We’re in the most stable financial situation I can recall over the last six years,” Hopson added.

“We’re in a continuous improvement mode here, not just in academics but the way we do business. We’ll be putting schools up against this framework every single year,” he said.

Dunbar Elementary is a recent example of how the district is seeking to change its approach to schools on the bubble for closure. Dunbar was on the chopping block this year but, after community outcry last month, Hopson’s administration spared the Orange Mound school and opted instead to invest in it.

Hopson said he has spoken with each principal from the 11 schools that will receive new treatment plans in the next 60 days.

“We’ve got to spend time with schools to figure out what needs are,” he said, noting there are no uniform solutions.

Hopson emphasized that the new framework is not a list for closing schools, although the targeted schools could still close later if they don’t improve.

Shelby County Schools has closed 15 schools during Hopson’s tenure as superintendent and, just last spring, he suggested that the district would have to close up to 24 more in the next five years. That number has since decreased to 18.

Hopson said the framework should help the district sort out those decisions.

“As long as we’re seeing improvement, then closure is not going to be something we’re talking about,” he said. “We want to give schools time.”

He added that new school principals typically are given about three years to make changes.

That timeline aligns with the Tennessee Department of Education’s proposed school improvement guidelines developed in response to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Under the proposal, the state is seeking to give districts more time to implement turnaround strategies before the state intervenes.

Below, you can read the district’s fact sheet about the new framework:

school closures

Hopson just backed away from closing one failing Memphis school. Here are three things to know.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

For more than a year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has beat a steady drum about the need to reduce the number of empty classroom seats in Memphis by closing schools and reconfiguring Tennessee’s largest district.

So many were taken by surprise on Tuesday night when Hopson announced that he had changed his mind about shuttering Dunbar Elementary, one of the first schools targeted in Hopson’s plan to close, build and consolidate schools.

School closures are nothing new in Memphis. But the newest round proposed last fall promised to be different. For the first time, Hopson and his team had used a comprehensive analysis of data to make their recommendations. Dunbar fit two of those criteria — low test scores and high building maintenance needs.

During the last week, however, a number of factors converged to change the fate for Dunbar, at least for the next year.

Here are three things to know now as Shelby County Schools moves forward with Hopson’s plan to right-size the district:

Hopson is showing a willingness to deviate from what the data says.

When considering which Memphis schools to close, three data points are factored in: low test scores, severe underenrollment, and high building maintenance costs.

Initially, Hopson said it was a “no brainer” to start by closing Dunbar and six other schools that fit some or all of those criteria.

But he took a second look after seeing a groundswell of community support around Dunbar from residents of Orange Mound, the historic African-American neighborhood that recently received a national heritage designation. So instead of closing the school based strictly on the data, Hopson used the school’s higher enrollment and the community support to justify new academic and capital investments.

“I have really heard you all loud and clear,” Hopson told Dunbar supporters before announcing he was tabling his recommendation. “And it’s not necessarily the words that I heard but it’s the actions behind the words that piqued my interest. You’ve got a committed community. And unlike other instances, … you don’t have (an enrollment) issue.”

Memphians have long complained that district leaders don’t listen to their concerns, while school leaders have often complained about a lack of parent and community involvement in many schools. Seeing Orange Mound’s outpouring of support for its last locally operated neighborhood school appeared to make the difference.

The district remains vigilant about retaining its students.

Dunbar is the only elementary school left in Orange Mound that’s operated by Shelby County Schools.

Keeping Dunbar open allows the local district to retain students who might have switched to two primary charter schools operated under the Achievement School District. The state-run campus at Hanley, managed by Aspire Public Schools, sits closer than the other Shelby County schools to which Dunbar students would have been reassigned.

“Some of the parents pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to put my kid on a bus. So my alternative may be to go to Aspire Hanley, which is around the corner,’” Hopson told reporters after the meeting. “That wasn’t an … alternative for me.”

Those concerns align with requests from school board members who have urged district administrators to track what happens to students when their schools are closed — whether they actually go to the new school they’re assigned to, or leave the district altogether.

Hopson still has a plan to guide the district. The next test will be moving ahead with the proposal to build and consolidate.

For now, Carnes Elementary will be the only school closed this spring following the school board’s vote on Tuesday night.

The other parts of Hopson’s plan will need funding approval before it comes to a school board vote. The superintendent has recommended replacing Goodlett and Alcy elementary schools and merging three others into the new buildings. That will require the school board to secure $49 million from the local funding body, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

The plan is in line with commissioners’ desire for the district to shorten the school system’s list of aging and costly school buildings.

This close-build-consolidate model is young in Memphis, with Westhaven Elementary School being the pioneer. But it has been a mostly popular solution thus far among residents and local officials.