Concerns about safety, community at school closures meeting

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
People hold aloft signs at a 2014 meeting to discuss proposed school closings in Memphis.

Children, parents, teachers, alumni, and community members told Shelby County administrators and board members that their decision to shut down 13 schools in Memphis would have dramatic economic and personal consequences at an intense meeting Thursday evening.

5th grader Daniel Peoples  tells the Shelby County school board not to close Bolton Elementary. Peoples is his class president.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
5th grader Daniel Peoples tells the Shelby County school board not to close Bolton Elementary. Peoples is his class president.

The schools have served as anchors of their communities and have produced notable alumni and supported students for decades, said some. Others charged that the district set the schools up to fail and that charter schools would soon spring up in place of closed schools.

But administrators have long contended they can’t afford to continue to operate nearly-empty and failing schools amid dramatic austerity cuts, and that students would be better served in other schools.

This would be the largest group of schools to close at once in the city’s recent history. Most of the schools are clustered in the southern and northern areas of the district, in predominantly low-income black communities.

The school board and administration scheduled Thursday’s meeting to get feedback from community members on their plans.

At the beginning of the meeting at the district’s headquarters, schools superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II showed charts demonstrating the academic performance and building quality of the schools slated to close.

“I assume it’s going to hurt you like it hurts me,” Hopson said. “We have failed these schools for a long time…Real-talk: We have 68 failing schools in Memphis.”

Northside High PTA president Evelyn Taylor and vice president
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Northside High PTA president Evelyn Taylor.

Hopson argued that students from the shuttered schools will be transferred to schools that will receive extra money for special academic programs and the unique ability for their principals to hand-pick their teachers.

Across the auditorium, the Northside High School’s alumni association, dressed in orange, held signs that read, “Bring back vocational education” and “Don’t Kill Our Community.” A group supporting Alcy Elementary School wore matching shirts: “Follow me to save Alcy Elementary School.” A Westhaven community member led a chant: “Save our schools! Save our schools!”

More than 40 community members out of a crowd of over 200 spoke to the board on Thursday.

The consequences of the school closures that were described were often personal. A woman worried how she would be able to transport her grandchild to school; the mother of a preschooler with special needs expressed concern about moving to a school with unfamiliar faces. One speaker, high school senior Sie Bradley, said hearing that Northside was being considered for closure several times over the past few years discouraged some of his friends from attending school at all.

Northside alumni and community members said they watched as programs were removed from their school and zoning changes drained the hallways of students over the last decade. Fewer than 300 students now attend a school that had more than 1,000 students in 2007.

“If they take away the vocational program, if they change the zones – why wouldn’t students go elsewhere?” said 87-year-old Evelyn Taylor, the president of Northside’s PTA. Taylor and a few dozen protesters stood along Summer Ave. with signs protesting the closings before the meeting.

Westhaven, which is on the list due to the condition of its building rather than due to its academic performance, drew some of the strongest defense. PTA member Bridget Bailey said, “If you say it’s unsafe, make it safe…you renovated Germantown and White Station.”

Speaker Claudette Boyd also decried disinvestment in the schools. “We did not elect you to close our schools,” she said.

Hopson said that he wanted to hear solutions, too, and many speakers responded. One speaker suggested that Northside be converted to a 6th through 12th-grade school and merged with another nearby school; another suggested that a school on the closings list become part of the district’s “Innovation Zone,” which is focused on improving low-performing schools. Others suggested changing busing patterns so students who live nearby schools slated to close would attend those schools rather than being bused farther away.

Follow us to help save Alcy Elementary.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Follow us to help save Alcy Elementary.

“Alcy has exhibited positive growth in academics every year since 2011…and the schools you’re going to bus students to are D and F schools, too,” said state representative Raumesh Akbari. “Alcy is an anchor in the community…We have a vision for Alcy that will take it to the next level.”

Hopson said the district would take into account community feedback. He cited Carver High School, where community advocates pushed to keep the school open, as an example of the board listening to community feedback.

District officials announced the following meetings regarding the closings, with more details to come:

  • Jan. 27 Alcy
  • Jan. 30 Riverview Elem. & Gordon
  • Feb. 3 Graves & Northside
  • Feb. 14 Westhaven
  • Feb. 6 Lanier
  • Feb. 10 Riverview Middle

The schools to close are:

  • Alcy Elementary School
  • Riverview Elementary School
  • Graves Elementary School
  • Westhaven Elementary School
  • Lanier Middle School
  • Corry Middle School
  • Riverview Middle School
  • Gordon Elementary School
  • Klondike Elementary School
  • Shannon Elementary School
  • Vance Middle School
  • Cypress Middle School
  • Northside High School
  • Community members watch presentations
    PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
    Community members watch presentations against closings.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”