next steps

Hopson’s plan to close and build schools gets good marks from county commissioners

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

For years, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has heard the same message from Shelby County commissioners who annually review the district’s budget: The county can’t keep putting money into aging school buildings, especially in a district with a shrinking enrollment and too many buildings.

Now that Hopson has a plan to replace and consolidate some of those buildings, county commissioners are liking what they see. That’s especially important because the Shelby County Board of Commissioners holds the purse strings for new school construction.

“I think it’s a model that gives those children the best opportunity to receive an education,” Commissioner Eddie Jones told Chalkbeat. “(There’s) more resources in one building where you have all of the kids.”

Hopson’s plan — which includes closing five schools and consolidating those students into three new buildings — is precisely what commissioners have been asking the county’s largest school system to do. Commissioners like that the proposal puts a dent in the district’s 22,000 empty seats while also building schools that will last and that the community can be proud of.

But first, Hopson’s plan must get school board approval. Board members will discuss the plan’s merits on Tuesday evening, and are scheduled to cast the first of two votes on related school closures on Dec. 6. The board also will vote whether to ask the commission for money to build new schools.

The projects involve replacing Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing these five elementary schools: Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven. The new construction, in part, is what makes Hopson’s proposal different from most school closures in Memphis in recent years. It also follows a model piloted with the recently reopened Westhaven Elementary School in Whitehaven.

The plan would begin with the Alcy and Goodlett consolidations. In order to start construction next summer for those two new schools, Hopson and the school board would have to go before the County Commission in December to get the needed funding — about $30 million in all.

The proposal tries to address commissioners’ concerns about closing schools in neighborhoods that have been long neglected, as well as the neighborhood blight that often follows the shuttering of a school. The hope is that crumbling school buildings would be razed to make way for new businesses.

“When you close a school … it leaves a hole in the community,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer. “Hopson is onto something.”

Terry Roland
PHOTO: Shelby County
Terry Roland

“People continue to leave Memphis,” adds Commissioner Terry Roland. “You don’t have as many kids in the city, and the ones you do have are the poorest kids. We’ve got to reverse that. … Until we do that, you can’t leave a school with 200 or 300 kids in it.”

The district’s stockpile of under-enrolled and deteriorating buildings was a major point of contention with commissioners during last spring’s budget discussions. Some suggested that the governing body should not grant the school system’s full funding request until district leaders make significant progress in reducing its facilities footprint.

According to district data released in May, 30 district-run schools were listed under 70 percent capacity. Eleven have less than half the students that the buildings were designed for.

An analysis of Shelby County Schools’ footprint has been in the works for more than a year, and Hopson is promising to release the study soon. The long-awaited analysis, already delayed twice, would guide up to 24 school closures over the next five years. The study originally was requested by county leaders to help commissioners prioritize spending on school facilities.

“We asked for the facility study because we didn’t want to keep putting money into buildings we would end up closing,” Shafer explained.

Hopson surprised many when he rolled out his newest plan this month before releasing the analysis. Many Memphians, including Roland, have said they want to understand the big picture before considering plans to close schools.

“The facilities study will have to come into us before we move forward,” Roland told Chalkbeat. “You can’t ask for money until we know what you have, what the projects are.”

But the delay isn’t an issue for several other commissioners including Walter Bailey, who chairs the commission’s education committee. “I think they should forge ahead just as they plan to,” Bailey said. “I think it’s a good opener for great things to come.”

Commissioner David Reaves, a former school board member, is glad to see the district looking to replicate the consolidation model used at Westhaven Elementary. He called the proposed closure of the district’s neediest buildings “low-hanging fruit.”

“You can’t wait for the entire conversation to be complete for action to be taken right now,” Reaves said. “(Students) shouldn’t have to stay in there longer than they have to.”

Eddie Jones
PHOTO: Shelby County
Eddie Jones

Jones said it would be best for the district to bring the proposal to the board as soon as possible. “I think the faster they fix their problems, the better it will be for kids,” he said. “Kicking the can down the road is just delaying the inevitable.”

If Hopson gets the plan approved by the school board and the funding he wants from the commission, the county’s six municipal school districts also will benefit. On top of the money to Shelby County Schools, the county would have to distribute a proportion to each municipality based on student enrollment.

Hopson has said his proposal is mostly about addressing the cost of maintaining aging buildings, but Jones said academics shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“They could have all the new buildings, but how is it going to benefit the children who are going to be educated within the walls of that building? That’s the question,” Jones said.

Hopson said academics is already suffering in those buildings, however.

“Since these conditions are undoubtedly unproductive and not conducive to student achievement, their continued operation is unfair to students and taxpayers,” Hopson said in a guest column last weekend in The Commercial Appeal. “It’s nearly impossible for our district to maintain outdated buildings while at the same time investing in effective academic strategies, employee compensation, the latest technology, a variety of after-school and summer programs, innovative partnerships and other much needed things.”

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.