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.” 

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.

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