the big picture

Ten stories to help you understand school closures in Memphis

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
From left: Parents Charlotte Smith and Nadia Holmes stand in front of South Side Middle before the South Memphis school was shuttered in 2015. The decision by leaders of Shelby County Schools impacted 300 students.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to build three new schools, but he also wants to close seven others in Shelby County Schools.

Hopson presented his plan last week to begin realigning bloated facilities with shrinking enrollment in Tennessee’s largest district. Next week, school board members will discuss the merits of the proposal before a scheduled Dec. 6 vote.

Here are 10 stories to help you prepare for such discussions. They examine what Hopson is proposing, why Memphis has closed schools in recent years, and what’s at stake as district leaders anticipate shuttering up to 24 schools over the next five years.

Close, build, consolidate. Hopson’s massive overhaul would impact 13 schools. It’s all in the details. Under Hopson’s proposal, seven schools would be closed, five of which would involve consolidations that would require building three new schools. Some students would be rezoned from other schools. In all, up to 4,600 students could be impacted.

Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012. If you want to understand where you’re going, it’s wise to remember where you’ve been. School closures have been an annual event in recent years due to shrinking enrollment, aging and under-utilized buildings, yearly budget shortfalls, and the steady addition of charter schools, including those within the state-run Achievement School District. Our list allows you to sort shuttered schools by final year of operation and the percent of facility used by its student population.

Here’s why the next round of school closings won’t be just about saving money. Decisions to close Memphis schools frequently have coincided with budget talks. But they shouldn’t. It’s hard to say whether closing schools actually saves money in the long run. Hopson and board members have said that, going forward, improving academics should be the primary driver in deciding which schools to shutter and which ones to keep open. That would be a paradigm shift in a city that in recent years has used a “kitchen sink” approach to closing schools based on multiple pressures.

Analysis: Memphis students from closed schools don’t always go to better ones. Many schools that would be impacted under Hopson’s newest plan are low-performing ones in the state’s bottom 10 percent of schools. In the past, the assumption has been that closing low-performing schools will cause students to end up in better ones. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to data on neighborhood schools shuttered since 2012.

Can closing schools boost academic achievement? Memphis leaders track students to find out. District leaders have begun tracking the academic performance of displaced students in their new schools. But the state’s partial cancellation of last year’s standardized TNReady test didn’t help.

Low enrollment a telltale for closing Memphis schools. Here’s what the numbers show. While district leaders say academics should be the main driver, a Chalkbeat analysis shows that shrinking student enrollment has been a primary factor in shuttering 20 schools since 2012, two thirds of which had been on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

Memphis schools don’t have 27,000 empty seats as Hopson cites — but they could in five years. Here’s why one of the most frequently touted numbers to justify changes isn’t exactly what you think.

Shelby County Schools says it needs to close more schools. Here are 25 that are at risk. Here’s our “watch list” of Memphis schools that already have three strikes against them, based on a Chalkbeat analysis of district data.

Half of Memphis schools closed since 2012 stand empty, with more closures on the way. It’s one thing to close schools; it’s another thing to figure out what to do with the empty buildings. Check out our interactive map and use the scroll-down feature to see the status of former buildings that once housed neighborhood schools.

Before closing more Memphis schools, board members want four questions answered. Even before Hopson unveiled his new plan, school board members began talking with the superintendent and his cabinet about the best way to close schools. Specifically, board members outlined four issues that will help guide their decisions, which may offer a peek at how they’ll vote on proposed closures.

Chalkbeat reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Tough talk

Hopson warns of ‘disheartening’ TNReady scores while board orders hearings on closing schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning that the state’s soon-to-be-released standardized test scores will be “disheartening” for Shelby County Schools and should galvanize the district to address “underutilized, poor-performing schools that have dire needs.”

The school board took that first step Tuesday evening by starting the process to close two Memphis schools and build two others. In all, Hopson is proposing to close seven schools and build three under his plan released last month.

The board quietly approved the actions after more than 20 community members spoke against Hopson’s plan amid a standing-room-only crowd.

Community meetings will begin next week on the proposed closures of Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools. The district also will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for funding to construct buildings to replace Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools.

Hopson tied the need to reshape Tennessee’s largest school system to upcoming TNReady test scores, which the State Department of Education is expected to release by next week.

“When I listen to the crowd, I hear ‘Close those schools, just don’t close my school,’” Hopson said. “Everyone has reason for why they don’t want certain action to happen, and I respect that. At the end of the day, we have 25,000 more seats than students. There has to be some action around right-sizing the district.”  

State officials have been warning for more than a year that test scores likely will go down under Tennessee’s new assessment, and they did. Last month, the Tennessee Department of Education released statewide TNReady scores showing that the vast majority of the state’s high school students aren’t ready for college based on the state’s rigorous new test and tougher grading scale. The upcoming scores will provide a closer look at the performance of individual districts and schools.

School closures require two votes by the school board, which is scheduled to take up the closures of Dunbar and Carnes again in January or February.

Specifically, the proposal would close Dunbar and consolidate those students in Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools. The closure of Carnes would fold those students into the Bruce and Downtown schools.

“Dunbar is a neighborhood school and the only elementary school in Orange Mound that provides public education,” student Khamari McElroy told the board. “It would be hard to move on, leaving friends and teachers who care so much about us. Our principal and teachers provide excellent lessons. We hear ‘failure is just not an option’ every day.”

Hopson’s plan involves not only closing seven elementary schools — Dunbar, Carnes, Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — but building three new ones to replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle.

Lanna Byrd, a veteran teacher at Knight Road, told the board that building new schools isn’t a bad thing, but that she doesn’t understand why Knight Road’s campus was passed over for a new construction project. She said many of the school’s families live in poverty, making it hard to transport their children to schools further away.

“I’ve seen a strong bond developed between parents and students and feel that bond would be broken if this school is demolished,” Byrd said.

Hopson has urged timely action by the school board so that the district could secure funding for new 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.

Next week’s community meetings are set for:

  • Carnes Elementary — Dec. 12, 4:30 p.m.
  • Dunbar Elementary — Dec. 15, 6 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include community meeting dates and that the district will seek funding for new schools from the County Commission.

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.