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.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 

Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.

Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: