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“Simply closing schools and often sending our most vulnerable kids to outdated facilities does nothing to improve student achievement,” Hopson said Tuesday.


Need to get caught up on school closure in Memphis? Start with these 10 stories


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.

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: