Slowing down

Vote on Memphis school closures, construction won’t come until new year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents and students from Knight Road Elementary School protest a proposal that would shutter their school during a board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposal to build, close and consolidate schools won’t get a vote from school board members until January at the soonest.

The first vote, which could have happened as early as next week, was delayed Tuesday night after school board members agreed that more time is needed for community discussion. Hopson wants to close seven schools and build three others to consolidate students and shutter aging buildings within Shelby County Schools.

Hopson, meanwhile, urged timely action to secure funding for construction. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the funding agent for local schools, have expressed support of Hopson’s plan and encouraged the school board to move ahead.

Hopson called the overhaul the “first phase” of efforts to “right-size” the district based on its facilities study that has been in the works for more than a year.

Under Hopson’s proposal, the district would replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle while closing five elementary schools — Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — and consolidating those students in the three new buildings. Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools also would be closed.

The superintendent was peppered with questions ranging from the cost of revamping transportation routes to the timing of community meetings.

“We need clear explanation around why certain schools were picked (for new construction) over others,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes Goodlett and Alcy schools. “That’s the No. 1 concern I’m hearing from parents: Why was this campus picked over mine?”

Hopson unveiled his plan on Nov. 16, calling it a first step in addressing quality, efficiency and equity for Memphis students and communities. He emphasized that six of the buildings he wants to close are among the 15 least efficient facilities in Shelby County Schools, while the consolidations would eliminate 2,500 empty seats in the bloated district.

“Simply closing schools and often sending our most vulnerable kids to outdated facilities does nothing to improve student achievement,” Hopson said Tuesday.


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The new timetable would include information sessions in December and January with parents and community members of all impacted schools.

“Because of the timing of the holidays, we want to make sure we get a critical mass out to those meetings,” said board member Shante Avant. “Especially since we have so many English-as-second-language learners impacted, we want to make sure we have great authentic community engagement.”

School board Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell looks on while Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents his plan.

Hopson backed off of some elements of his proposal, particularly the rebuilding of Alcy Elementary. He said staff is working to determine if that land was the best place for the project.

The proposal drew a silent protest from about 50 parents and students from Knight Road Elementary, who held up signs urging board members not to close their school.

“Teachers told us our school would be closing,” said Sandra Perez, who brought her two children, ages 5 and 8, to the meeting. “I walk my babies to school. I can’t have them go further away. We want either our school to stay or for us to build a new school on our land.”

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede 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.