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.

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.