Tennessee

Parents, teachers sue Shelby County Schools over closing of Memphis school

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Attorney Paul Robinson discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of members of Memphis' South Side community in the wake of the closing of a beloved neighborhood school.

Citing the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that led to integration of America’s public schools, a handful of Memphis parents and teachers are suing Shelby County Schools over a recent school closing, claiming that its students will receive an “inferior and unequal” education at the school to which they are being reassigned.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court, three teachers, family members of two students, and a community activist argue that test scores at South Side Middle School, which is in the process of being shuttered, outpaced those at Riverview Middle School last year. They say Riverview is a dilapidated building in a gang-ridden neighborhood that would place students’ safety at risk. They also cite absence of computer and Spanish classes at Riverview, which were offered at South Side.

“It becomes an issue when the students are moving backward, not forward,” said Paul Robinson, the group’s lawyer, during a news conference on Thursday. “Everything is worse than what they have now. When you downgrade a child’s education or place them in an inferior environment, you’re violating their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit, which was filed last week, appears to be the first of its kind in Memphis, where declining enrollment and budget cuts have forced the closure of 19 schools in Memphis since 2012, including South Side.

Robinson said lawyers across the nation have successfully argued that school closures violate students’ rights to a quality education. An alumnus of South Side, he said he is more concerned that students will be placed in a worse school setting than he is about South Side closing.

“An inferior education is inherently unequal and it violates the 14th Amendment,” Robinson said.

Contacted by Chalkbeat on Thursday about the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools declined to comment about ongoing litigation.

However, during a series of community meetings earlier this year, Shelby County administrators said they were moving students at South Side, where just one-fourth of students met the state’s reading expectations last year, to a school in the district’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that receive intense interventions aimed at academic turnarounds. The iZone is an expensive initiative that has proven mostly effective since its launch by the district in 2013.

District leaders have said the school closings are necessary because operating under-enrolled schools is not financially or academically efficient. However, Chalkbeat analysis found that students’ test scores have sunk at schools that receive students from shuttered schools, and members of the Shelby County Board of Education have challenged administrators to be more purposeful in reassigning students in the future.

South Side and its future have been the subject of much recent discussion. Twice since 2013, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) explored intervening after the middle school landed on the list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools. But both times, the ASD withdrew amid protests from the community.

Meanwhile, the school’s student test scores have stagnated. Finally in January, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would shutter South Side at the close of the 2014-15 school year and move its students next school year to Riverview, its cross-town rival.

During a subsequent South Side community meeting, parents and students complained that prostitutes roam the streets and gang members regularly exchange gunfire near Riverview, less than two miles from SouthSide, which is nestled in an historic neighborhood rocked by economic shifts and a flood of home foreclosures.

Teachers questioned the accuracy of test score reports from the district that presented Riverview’s scores as better than South Side’s.

“We knew some of the things weren’t right,” said Tondalaya Jackson, the school’s physical education teacher who is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We didn’t know we had a legal basis for it.”

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.