school closures

As vote approaches, Shelby County commissioners ask school board to reevaluate closings plans

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Supporters of Westhaven Elementary School at County Commission meeting.

A day before Shelby County’s school board is scheduled to vote on plans to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis, the county commission voted unanimously to ask board members to reconsider their plans for at least one of those schools.

The commission passed a resolution Monday asking the district’s board to reevaluate their plan to close Westhaven Elementary School. Westhaven is on the list of schools slated to close due mainly to its poor facility conditions. But commission members and school district officials have responded positively to a community proposal that it and two other nearby schools be consolidated into a brand-new building.

The Shelby County school board is slated to vote on superintendent Dorsey Hopson II’s plan for the closures at Tuesday’s board meeting. At last week’s meeting, Hopson hinted that the district’s plans for Westhaven Elementary School, Alcy Elementary School, Riverview Middle School, and Northside High School might change. But he gave no final recommendation to the board and said the decision would likely come down to the wire. Tuesday night’s proposal is likely to look different than the initial plan presented to the board.

The district plans to close the schools due to a combination of underenrollment, low academic performance, and deteriorating facilities, as part of an effort to right-size the district. But at last week’s working session, which came after a series of emotional community meetings, board members raised concerns about many of the plans. This would be the largest set of school closings in one year in the district’s recent history.

Community members have protested the closings in and out of a series of district-coordinated meetings, and Tuesday’s meeting is likely to be well-attended. A dozen supporters of Westhaven Elementary School attended the county commission meeting Monday afternoon. Parent Jackie Love and grandparent Bridget Bradley told commissioners they believe that the school should not be closed.

Westhaven PTO president Bridget Bradley at the Shelby County Commission meeting 2.24.

Westhaven PTO president Bridget Bradley at the Shelby County Commission meeting 2.24.

County commission member Justin Ford added the resolution to the commission’s agenda as an add-on item. Ford visited Westhaven last Friday and said he was convinced the district should avoid closing the school due to the school’s positive environment and academic trajectory and in order to prevent the disruption of its large number of special needs students. The school was described as the keystone of a working-class community south of Whitehaven.

“They came to me,” Ford said, when asked why he was supporting Westhaven rather thanother schools slated to close.

The commissioners voted unanimously to support the resolution. Several commissioners spoke approvingly of the show of support and involvement from the protesters.

“You’ve got to keep going,” said Bridget Bradley, the president of Westhaven PTO, after she tearfully addressed the county commission.

Commissioner Mike Ritz said he had spoken with school board members who suggested that the district might propose building a new building on Westhaven’s lot to the commission as soon as Tuesday. The commission must vote to approve new school buildings in the county.

“The board knows they don’t have to do what we ask them to do,” Ritz said. “But we’re also giving them an indication of our preferences at this moment.”

Superintendent Hopson said he supported creating a new school for students from Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven Elementary Schools rather than closing Westhaven at last week’s working session meeting.

The district’s rezoning plans, shaped in reaction to the planned creation of municipal school districts, will not be voted on this week though they were a major topic of discussion at last week’s meeting. The district is starting a process of community hearings about those plans.

The board will also vote on the 2014-15 school year calendar and other items at tomorrow’s meeting. Here’s the full agenda.

The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Francis E. Coe auditorium Frances E. Coe Auditorium (160 S. Hollywood).

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

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