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.


One school will close, one will stay open as Hopson alters plan to respond to neighborhood needs

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Claudette Boyd applauds during public comment at a Shelby County Schools board meeting regarding a vote to close Dunbar Elementary School.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson pulled his recommendation Tuesday night to close Dunbar Elementary, one of two Memphis schools on the chopping block as Shelby County Schools seeks to address district-wide issues with low enrollment, aging buildings and subpar academics.

The other school, Carnes Elementary, will close as proposed this spring following a unanimous vote by the school board.

Hopson announced that he was tabling for now his recommendation to close Dunbar. The school board already had supported shuttering the school in the first of two votes necessary for closure. But in a surprise move before the second vote, the superintendent reversed course, citing the school’s recent academic gains and looking at ways to address its high building maintenance costs.

To help the school continue to progress academically, Hopson said the district will add an hour to Dunbar’s school day, hire additional instructional coaches, and pursue a $150,000 grant to bolster literacy work. The school board will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for an additional $3.2 million to cover maintenance needs.

The change of heart means that, for now, Memphis’ historic Orange Mound neighborhood will keep its last elementary school operated by Shelby County Schools. Aspire Public Schools operates a pair of state-run charter schools at its Hanley campus in Orange Mound.

But the school still has numerous hurdles to overcome. Dunbar ranks eighth worst in the district in building efficiency when comparing the cost to repair the building with the cost to replace it. It also landed on the State Department of Education’s 2016 warning list of schools at risk of state intervention due to poor academic performance.

But unlike other Memphis schools that already have been shuttered, Dunbar does not meet all the criteria for closure, Hopson said later.

“The building is not underutilized. There is a critical mass of kids in there,” he said. “And there are whole lot of people willing to put their necks on the line to improve the school. We have a clamoring for community support. So when you have authentic community support that is actually willing to work, … that contributed to my decision.”

This is the second time in as many years that Dunbar has been on the brink of closure.

The latest reversal was met with glee by Orange Mound parents, teachers and community members who showed up in force to support their school. Last week, more than 300 people had attended a community meeting at the school to discuss the proposed closure. That’s when Hopson and his team began to piece together an alternative plan. On Monday, he met with school staff to see what kind of supports might work.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Khamari McElroy, fifth-grade student president at Dunbar Elementary School, asks school board members to keep his school open.

Khamari McElroy, a fifth-grader who is Dunbar’s student body president, spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting and said later that his superintendent made the right call. “I love going to Dunbar, and I’m so happy and excited other people know why,” he said.

Neighborhood leader Claudette Boyd said Dunbar’s history makes the school vital to Orange Mound, recently named a “Preserve America Community” by former first lady Michelle Obama.

“Dunbar was built in 1958 in the middle of a bustling African-American neighborhood,” Boyd said. “I hope every community realizes from what happened tonight the power of when a community unites around what’s best for its children.”

Joyce Coleman, who is president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, said the community must stay involved to keep the momentum going.

“We need to support our principal and her vision for the school,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t expecting this decision, but it means everything for our neighborhood and our babies.”

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.