School Closings

Superintendent foreshadows changes to school closings plan as board members call for academic accountability

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Westhaven Elementary School parents and students are hopeful that their school will remain open.

At a crowded school board meeting Wednesday night, a voice rang out from a group of children and adults clustered in the back of the room, dressed in red and white Westhaven Elementary School t-shirts: “Thanks Mr. Superintendent! We love you!”

It was a far cry from a community meeting earlier this month, where speaker after speaker denounced Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board members for neglecting Westhaven Elementary School. The district is considering closing Westhaven and 12 other Memphis schools before the 2014-15 school year.

The district’s final plan is likely to look different than the initial set of proposed school closings presented in December, if Hopson’s comments Wednesday were any indication. While Hopson didn’t make any final announcements about which schools will close, he gave some school communities – including Westhaven – hope that their schools might remain open.

“I’m surprised but happy,” said Bridget Bradley, the grandparent of a student at the school and president of Westhaven’s PTO. Bradley spoke at a protest against the closing last week.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Hopson outlined plans he received from school communities that ranged from rezoning students to building entirely new buildings and gave his reaction to each. Plans from Westhaven Elementary School and Alcy Elementary School received the most positive attention from the superintendent and from board members.

The Shelby County board will vote on Hopson’s final proposal next Tuesday. Hopson told Chalkbeat that developing that proposal will likely come “down to the wire.”

Hopson’s presentation came after a series of community meetings at nine of the 13 Memphis schools currently being considered for closure. (Shelby County Schools will definitely stop operating schools in four of the buildings, which will be run by charter schools and the Achievement School District.) The district is considering closing the nine schools due to a combination of factors, including low academic performance, deteriorating buildings, and declining enrollment.

Hopson said he heard concerns from communities about blight and transportation troubles that might result from the closings. “There was a lot of emotion,” he said. “One thing is crystal clear – people love their schools.”

Alcy Elementary School’s plan to improve literacy was singled out for praise. “There’s a strong support system, including donors and corporations,” Hopson said. “I’m impressed by (the) plan they set forth relating to literacy.”

Board members David Reaves, Billy Orgel, Teresa Jones, and Shante Avant also spoke in favor of keeping Alcy open.

Of Westhaven, Hopson said, “after studying the issue, I do have some concerns about what we proposed.” Hopson said that the buildings Westhaven students were slated to attend due to their school’s deteriorating condition also had millions of dollars in necessary building improvements. Both schools – Fairley and Raineshaven – also have lower academic ratings than Westhaven.

“Westhaven’s proposal is to tear down Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven, combine all three schools and build a new school in that area,” Hopson said. “It’s a good idea.” Community members cheered. Hopson cautioned that building a new structure would require the approval of the county commission, and board members suggested that not be an immediate solution. But board members Avant, Caldwell, Jones and chairman Kevin Woods also spoke in favor of keeping Westhaven open.

The district is waiting to learn whether it can reconfigure or close Riverview Middle School and still retain money from a federal School Improvement Grant, Hopson said. The superintendent said he hopes that the district can merge Riverview Elementary School and Riverview Middle school into a K-8 school, rather than merging the middle school with Carver High School and closing the elementary school, as had initially been planned.

Plans for Northside High School, Graves Elementary School, and Gordon Elementary School, which focused on rezoning students and included closing other schools, were described as less feasible.

At Northside, “data suggests that students wouldn’t attend even if zoned there,” Hopson said. Many students zoned to the school currently transfer out. Still, Hopson said, Northside could potentially host new alternative or vocational programs: “If we do see a viable plan that would allow it to stay open,  we could present (that) to the board,” Hopson said. 

Westhaven community members were protesting their school's closing right until the board meeting started.
Westhaven community members were protesting their school’s closing right until the board meeting started.

Board members and the superintendent acknowledged that many of the schools have borne the brunt of past board decisions. “I feel really bad about what happened in that community,” said board member David Reaves of the area around Northside, which lost many students due to earlier zoning changes. Jones highlighted the fact that the area is near city redevelopment projects and could see revitalization in coming years. Board member Avant reminded other board members that Westhaven had asked for building improvements years ago but never received them.

Board members asked Hopson how the district planned to improve and monitor academics in the schools. “For me, my decision is based not so much on what we’re going to do and what we’re taking away – it’s will these children get a better environment for student achievement,” Jones said. “We’ve closed schools before. What have those situations yielded in terms of better courses or offerings of extracurricular activities?”

Research suggests that many districts that have closed schools have struggled to improve education opportunities for affected students.

Hopson said that receiving schools would have the opportunity to apply for a blended learning pilot.

“I will wait to hear final proposals,” said board member Teresa Jones. “At this time, I’m not supporting many of the current ones.”

“The academic plan should have been proposed at the beginning,” Avant said. “If we’re thinking about the magnitude of what it’ll cause in a community, we should have been talking, what is the academic plan for achievement.”

“It’s incumbent on us to have a three-to-five year plan and give the neighborhood realistic expectations so they can monitor and we can monitor how we’re doing,” said board member Chris Caldwell.

Board members told district officials that they should ensure that the plans they’re making won’t land the district in the position of having to close more schools soon. Reaves asked to see an operations plan suggesting that merging three schools instead of closing Westhaven would be efficient in the long run, given declining enrollment.

Board members alternately commended and criticized the closings process. Jones said she would not vote on those schools whose community meetings she was not able to attend because they conflicted with other meetings. Avant said she was “hopeful the community feels that the board and administration has given them an opportunity to share how they’ll be affected.”

Hopson said he acknowledged that these are tough decisions. “I hear everyone. My kid is in these schools. I grew up in these communities,” he said. “But we can’t have three failing schools all within walking distance of each other and all of them underutilized. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hopson said he thought the district’s struggles to “right-size” make it a “canary in the coal mine” for the city of Memphis, which has also seen its population patterns change. “We used to have 3,700 people per square mile; now it’s 1,700. What this board is having to undertake, the city of Memphis has to undertake for its long-term stability.” 

Hopson reiterated that the closings are not driven by savings. “This isn’t about budget. The savings may be $2-3 million,” he said. “That’s not enough for the heartache…But we have to do things to make sure we’re able to sustain ourselves as a school district.”

 

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