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.

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.