School Closings

Shelby County board members address personal attacks, charges of racism at school closings meeting

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Community members at a meeting hosted by Shelby County school board

Shelby County school board members and superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II addressed residents’ accusations that the planned closings of 13 schools are racially motivated during a meeting at Westhaven Elementary School Tuesday.

“There is no conspiracy to undermine the black community,” Hopson said. “When I hear stuff like, this is a race issue, it’s offensive…Shelby County Schools has the population it does, and most of the kids in Shelby County Schools look like me.”

The district is considering closing as many as 13 schools in Memphis before the 2014-15 school year due to a combination of declining enrollment, low academic achievement, and deteriorating facilities. Most of those closings are in predominantly black areas. This was the seventh community meeting about the closings out of nine scheduled by the board.

At each meeting so far, speakers have told the board that impact of school closings has historically fallen in black communities. “The district has never closed a predominantly Caucasian school,” said Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, at meetings at both Northside High School and at Westhaven.

Board members have not publicly responded to accusations that the decisions about what schools will close are based on race at previous meetings.

The complaints made about the impact of closings on black communities are not unique to Memphis. Last year, groups in six cities filed complaints with the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that school closings have a disparate impact on minority communities.

District officials said Tuesday that Westhaven was put on the list of schools to close due to the deteriorating quality of its building. Westhaven PTA president Bridget Bailey asked the board to consider creating a new school building.

Several speakers referred to improvements in suburban areas or northern parts of town as evidence that the district has been ignoring African-Americans. Others said the plans indicated that the board members did not care about Westhaven students.

One man asked the four board members present where their children went to school. Another speaker accused board president Kevin Woods of arrogance.

Superintendent Hopson stepped in:

Hopson said he respected attendees for coming to the meeting to voice their concerns. He asked the community to channel its energies into helping its children learn to read.

“Seventy-odd percent are not reading at grade-level…I’m not making this up,” he said.  “I’m from Memphis. It sickens me to see these numbers. We as a community have to make sure we band together to make sure all these babies are prepared for a future that’s going to require them to be prepared to read.”

After attendees had spoken, the four board members who were present responded. “My community that has to vote for me is out East,” Woods said, growing emotional. “But I care about the community here too.”

“Just because we sit on the other side of this table does not mean we do not care,” said Teresa Jones. “Everything you say, I take into consideration. And I don’t sleep some nights because I want to make the right decision. I understand what happens if a child does not get a quality education.”

“I could care less what somebody’s skin color is,” Chris Caldwell said. “I’ve asked the administration for dollars and cents to make sure if we’re going to disrupt any family, it has some benefit to a greater group of kids.”

“As your representative of this district, I am advocating what is best for the kids of Westhaven,” said Shante Avant.

Here’s board member Woods’ response:

And here are Chris Caldwell and Shante Avant.

Hopson emphasized that the board is currently considering recommendations from the district and has not made any decisions. The board plans to vote on the proposed closings later this month. 

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

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.”