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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.