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.”

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.