School Closings

Plans to close Memphis schools touch off protests and draw attention to deep-rooted concerns

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Keep Northside Open

This winter, Shelby County Schools’ plan to close as many as 13 of its schools has become a flashpoint for long-running frustrations about public investment in low-income black communities and ongoing changes to local and state school policy.

Shelby County administrators say closing the buildings before the 2014-15 school year will allow them to consolidate resources and

Community members watch presentations
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Community members watch presentations

address chronic under-enrollment, low academic performance, and deteriorating facilities. Protesters say the school closings will disrupt communities and students’ lives, and are skeptical of district claims that they will improve the quality of education. 

At each of the nine schools that would sit empty next year, the district is hosting meetings aimed at allowing community members to learn about and respond to the plans. (The other four buildings will remain open as part of the state-run Achievement School District or as public charter schools.)

These meetings have quickly become about more than closings, as community members have used the public comment time to lay out concerns about the growing presence of charter schools, the erosion of popular academic and extra-curricular programs, decreasing job security for teachers and a perception that the district invests more in affluent and white communities. The closings are seen as a concrete manifestation of a deeper pattern of neglect. And the protests have quickly spilled outside the confines of the planned meetings, into vigils, rallies, and protests that are often led by clergy and echo the language and strategies of the civil rights movement.

Last Tuesday, the cafeteria at Westhaven Elementary School was a sea of brand-new t-shirts that read “I <3 Westhaven,” “We deserve a new building” and “Save our school!” The day before, dozens stood outside Northside High School on a steely cold day, holding candles and signs that read in bold letters, “Don’t Kill Our Community.” In the weeks before that, Alcy Elementary School leaders met with clergy, local politicians, and business leaders late into the evening, trying to figure out how to demonstrate that they could improve literacy rates at their school.

A profile picture circulating among Northside High School alumni
PHOTO: Facebook
A profile picture circulating among Northside High School alumni

Board members and district officials say they are listening to community feedback and plans in order to make the best decision for students. “I have not decided what my vote will be,” board member Teresa Jones said at a meeting at Westhaven

It is likely that many of the schools will close, as part of the district’s attempt to improve academic performance, ease budget pressures, and respond to a changing landscape that includes the planned creation of six new suburban school districts, long-term downward demographic trends, a new state-run district and a growing charter sector. Charter schools and the state-run district now educate some 12,000 of Shelby County’s more-than-150,000 students.  

Urban districts around the country have closed dozens of schools in recent years, often prompted by enrollment, budgetary and academic concerns similar to those driving the plans in Memphis. Chicago’s school district closed more than 50 schools last year, and Philadelphia’s closed 24. Protesters in those cities, among others, have also described the closures as part of a pattern of neglect or disinvestment and have raised concerns about their effect on students and communities. The protests have had mixed results.

“There are schools in which community-based groups, parent groups, and locally-elected officials mobilized and put pressure on the district, which then backed down. But I don’t want to overstate how often it happens,” said Norm Fruchter, an associate at the Annenburg Institute for School Reform, which researches school closings and supports community organizing.

Jitu Brown, an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago, formed a coalition of groups in 24 cities, called Journey For Justice, to protest school closings. Journey For Justice has submitted complaints to the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that closings have a disparate impact on minority students and petitioned for changes to the federal School Improvement Grant program, which funds school closings as one route to academic improvement.

“When you close a school, you’re disinvesting in that population,” Brown said. “People recognize that. That’s why I think people were willing to take chances we normally wouldn’t be willing to take.”

In Memphis, most of the activism has stayed at the individual school level. “Everyone wants to keep their school open,” said Raumesh Akbari, a state representative whose district includes Alcy Elementary School, which is slated to close.

But the past few years has seen several waves of protest involving some of the the city’s lowest-ranked schools, which are located in low-income, majority black communities. (More than four fifths of the city’s public school students are black.) The district closed four schools in 2012 and four in 2013. And community meetings at schools slated to be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken the reins of 15 Memphis schools that were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state since 2012, have also drawn crowds.

A group of alumni at one of those schools, Carver High School, helped create a plan to merge with other nearby schools. Administrators approved the plan, allowing the school to stay open. 

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II cited Carver at a meeting this December as evidence that the district is listening to the community, and Akbari said many were inspired by the success of that plan.

“[Hopson] said, you know, what I need is a plan,” said Akbari.

At a meeting at Northside High, alumni passed out a sheet of paper contesting the district’s reasons for closing the school. Alumni are trying to garner support from all directions. “We have an outreach component, a strategy team to oversee all the communities, a social media component,”  said Katrina Thompson, an alumna. “We have communicated with community leaders, state representatives, and the city council. We’ve started a petition drive, we’ve sent out postcards.” 

At the school closings meeting.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
A parent addresses the possible closure of Northside High School at the district’s school closings meeting.

 

An online petition to save Northside on Change.org has garnered more than 500 signatures.

Westhaven PTA president Bridget Bradley presented to the district a petition with 6,000 signatures and gave an emotional plea to keep the school open for the sake of its many special needs students. At the same meeting, Rev. Dwight Ray Montgomery told the school board, “If Dr. King were here today, he’d be standing where I’m standing today, unafraid.”

Reginald Porter, the district’s chief of staff, said district officials are trying to navigate a difficult situation. “Some of the decisions [people are upset about] were made 20 years ago. We’re making things right with where we are now. They have to be realistic, have to know we’re working with limited resources.”

Board members and officials have told communities that the district is aiming to improve schools. “These decisions are not made easily for us,” said Hopson at a meeting at Alcy Elemetary School. “But we have to continue to do what’s right by these kids.” Hopson urged families to channel some of their passion for the schools into helping students learn to read.

The list of 13 schools to close was released in December, and the board is slated to vote on the closings later this month.

In the meantime, “we’re scrambling,” said Kacee Franklin, an alumnus of Northside High School. “We’re going to present them a plan, but at this point we don’t have the same access to all the data that Shelby County Schools has, nor do we have the resources. Right now, they’re in closure mode.  So it’s hard to say whether they’re listening or not.” 

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.