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).

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

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.”