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.

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.