Tough talk

Hopson warns of ‘disheartening’ TNReady scores while board orders hearings on closing schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is warning that the state’s soon-to-be-released standardized test scores will be “disheartening” for Shelby County Schools and should galvanize the district to address “underutilized, poor-performing schools that have dire needs.”

The school board took that first step Tuesday evening by starting the process to close two Memphis schools and build two others. In all, Hopson is proposing to close seven schools and build three under his plan released last month.

The board quietly approved the actions after more than 20 community members spoke against Hopson’s plan amid a standing-room-only crowd.

Community meetings will begin next week on the proposed closures of Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools. The district also will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for funding to construct buildings to replace Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools.

Hopson tied the need to reshape Tennessee’s largest school system to upcoming TNReady test scores, which the State Department of Education is expected to release by next week.

“When I listen to the crowd, I hear ‘Close those schools, just don’t close my school,’” Hopson said. “Everyone has reason for why they don’t want certain action to happen, and I respect that. At the end of the day, we have 25,000 more seats than students. There has to be some action around right-sizing the district.”  

State officials have been warning for more than a year that test scores likely will go down under Tennessee’s new assessment, and they did. Last month, the Tennessee Department of Education released statewide TNReady scores showing that the vast majority of the state’s high school students aren’t ready for college based on the state’s rigorous new test and tougher grading scale. The upcoming scores will provide a closer look at the performance of individual districts and schools.

School closures require two votes by the school board, which is scheduled to take up the closures of Dunbar and Carnes again in January or February.

Specifically, the proposal would close Dunbar and consolidate those students in Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools. The closure of Carnes would fold those students into the Bruce and Downtown schools.

“Dunbar is a neighborhood school and the only elementary school in Orange Mound that provides public education,” student Khamari McElroy told the board. “It would be hard to move on, leaving friends and teachers who care so much about us. Our principal and teachers provide excellent lessons. We hear ‘failure is just not an option’ every day.”

Hopson’s plan involves not only closing seven elementary schools — Dunbar, Carnes, Knight Road, Charjean, Magnolia, Lucy and Northaven — but building three new ones to replace Goodlett Elementary, Alcy Elementary and Woodstock Middle.

Lanna Byrd, a veteran teacher at Knight Road, told the board that building new schools isn’t a bad thing, but that she doesn’t understand why Knight Road’s campus was passed over for a new construction project. She said many of the school’s families live in poverty, making it hard to transport their children to schools further away.

“I’ve seen a strong bond developed between parents and students and feel that bond would be broken if this school is demolished,” Byrd said.

Hopson has urged timely action by the school board so that the district could secure funding for new 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.

Next week’s community meetings are set for:

  • Carnes Elementary — Dec. 12, 4:30 p.m.
  • Dunbar Elementary — Dec. 15, 6 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include community meeting dates and that the district will seek funding for new schools from the County Commission.

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.