School Closings

School closings loom in background as Shelby County Schools plans 2014-15 budget

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Student gazes at camera.

As Shelby County Schools’ board considers how to close a $24 million budget gap, district officials say their plans to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis are separate from strategies for closing that gap.

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II sent an email to board members in preparation for the district’s budget and finance committee meeting Thursday, saying that he plans to present a balanced budget, including cuts from the central office, closure of two alternative schools and a reduction in regional offices.

Earlier this week, Shelby County Schools concluded a series of meetings about the planned school closings in which community members repeatedly alleged that district decisions are driven by money and would have dire consequences for students and low-income black communities in Memphis. 

But district officials say that the plan to close schools is motivated by academic performance and low building utilization, not budget concerns, and so will likely not be a focus of Thursday’s discussion.

“Savings is not a factor when determining to close a school,” said Stefani Everson, a spokeswoman for the district. “It’s not a reason. The board is making its decision based on enrollment and opportunities for students.” She said that the financial ramifications of the closings would only be clear after the board votes on the proposals and determines how to staff the schools.

Officials are battling a public perception built by a sense that the closings come after a history of disinvestment in affected neighborhoods and by past school school closures tied to budget cuts.

The district began its budget planning process with a $103.7 million budget gap and has reduced that to $24 million, according to Hopson’s letter. The deficit projections are fluid until the 2014-15 budget is finalized.

Declining enrollment in district-run public schools in the Memphis is a factor in the district’s budget woes and in the plans for school closings. Hopson estimates that Shelby County Schools will lose $68 million in funds that will follow students who leave to attend one of the new municipal school districts in suburban Memphis, charter schools, or the state-run Achievement School District next year.

In the 2014-15 school year, as many as 28,000 students could attend a municipal school district and more than 2,000 might join the 12,000 already attending a charter or ASD school. Four of the 13 schools on the closings list will be run by the ASD or charters. The 150,000-student district has proposed putting new charter schools in some of the other facilities slated to close. The district is also pointing to declining birth trends in the neighborhoods surrounding many of the schools.

The result is schools with far fewer students than they were intended to hold. Lanier Middle School, for instance, had 638 students 10 years ago and 388 this year. Northside High School had 1,137 students 10 years ago but now has just 299.

Many large urban districts have closed district-run schools in recent years due to factors that include declining enrollment, low test scores, and financial woes. Last year, Chicago closed 50 schools and Philadelphia closed 24. (Detroit’s school district has closed dozens of schools in recent years, but last year decided to invest in a marketing strategy to lure students back to its schools rather than continuing to shutter schools.)

Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts that analyzed school closings in 12 cities, found that school districts tend not to save much money by closing schools, even when that was a stated goal, unless they went hand-in-hand with large layoffs. The district will be educating most of the same students and will need to foot transport students and staff the merged schools. Superintendent Hopson said the district plans to give merged schools priority in a new blended learning pilot, included in the budget proposal to be reviewed on Thursday.

At a community meeting earlier this year, superintendent Hopson told the audience that the district knew it might not save money by closing buildings.

The district has long been considering “right-sizing” by closing schools to match enrollment trends. But savings are usually cited as a benefit of the closings. The Transition Planning Commission responsible for guiding the merger between Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools suggested that more than 20 schools be closed, with a proposed savings of $21 million dollars and a cost of $1.9 million. The district closed four schools in 2012 and four more in 2013.

At a meeting of the board last April, the superintendent projected savings of about $4.1 million in a year if 10 schools were closed or merged.

But this time, during a round of closings that would be the largest in recent history, the district’s public plans for the proposed closures emphasize enrollment, facility conditions, and academic performance at each of the schools that might be closed and omit budget savings.

“Frequently Asked Questions” brochure passed out at school meetings lays out high deferred maintenance costs at six of the schools – for instance, $4.9 million at Cypress Elementary School – but does not specify other cost savings.

Reginald Porter Jr., the district’s chief of staff, said that the district is not trying to hit a specific target in savings from the closings, and that it is not aiming to close a specific number of schools.

Kevin Woods, the chairman of the Shelby County school board, said that he was presented with school closure recommendations made on the basis of school enrollment and student achievement. “We’re making the decisions based on those factors,” he said.

“Naturally when you look to right-size the school district, there are going to be some efficiencies there,” he said. “You hopefully will see those resources pulled back into schools that are affected by the closures…Schools may have been so underutilized that they haven’t had art or music, you have middle schools without sports.”

But some members of communities affected by the closings are skeptical of school officials’ shift in messaging from budget savings to school performance.

“Of course it’s about money,” said Bridget Bradley, the president of the PTO at Westhaven Elementary School, who is campaigning for the district to build a new building for Westhaven rather than closing it. “You do not close 12 to 13 schools without some hidden agenda about what kind money you’re going to save,” she said.

Bradley said that the district has historically invested less in low-income black communities than in schools in more-affluent, whiter parts of town. She cited recent investments in schools in Germantown and Collierville. That claim was echoed by many at the nine community meetings hosted by the district. The question of why certain buildings have so few students is also fraught: Part of that drop at Northside is due to the relocation of certain programs.

Chief of staff Porter has said that current staff are working with a tough situation that has been created by decades of district leaders.

At the district’s final community meeting, at Riverview Middle School, board member Teresa Jones responded to several speakers’ contention that the decision was “all about money.” “Money is a factor in everything you do,” Jones said. “We’re struggling to use the dollars we have to do the most good.”

In Hopson’s Feb. 5 email, he assured board members that he would present a balanced budget that aligns with district priorities: to improve student literacy, promote effective teachers and leaders, improve underperforming schools, increase opportunities for high-achieving students, increase business efficiencies and improve community engagement. The letter does not mention the school closings plans.

Board chairman Woods and member Chris Caldwell have said now that the business of the merger is over, they want the district to focus improving student literacy. Board members learned in November that more than 60 percent of Shelby County’s third graders are reading at a basic or below basic level.

Hopson has encouraged community members protesting the closures to focus on improving literacy in their schools. “If we’re not providing quality education, we’re doing kids a disservice,” he said. Hopson said that merging schools will allow the district to consolidate resources and improve schools.

Thursday’s budget and finance committee meeting is at 1 p.m. in the Barnes building conference room 214.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.