Shelby County Schools, private funders eye Crosstown high school for midtown Memphis

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Crosstown Concourse, a building being redeveloped in midtown Memphis, is the site of a proposed selective high school.

Months after a charter network abandoned its plan to open a new school in a prominent midtown Memphis development, the district has another proposal for the space — a selective school that would appeal to the city’s middle class.

Crosstown High School would serve as a college prep school designed for students who perform on or above grade level on state tests, according to a proposal that the Shelby County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss for the first time Tuesday evening.

The proposal is a change of direction from an earlier plan by Gestalt Community Schools, which was named a year ago as a future tenant for the Crosstown Concourse development. The high-performing charter network, which pulled out of the deal last fall, focuses on serving students from poor families and does not screen students by ability.

It also would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Those efforts have included overhauling some struggling schools and ceding others to charter operators, causing the district to lose students and the state funding that follows them.

In part because of those efforts, the educational landscape in Memphis is becoming increasingly competitive and the district needs “as many good programs as it can” have, said board member Chris Caldwell, who serves the city’s midtown neighborhoods.

“If we’re trying to provide more environments and more schools that are high performing, we’re going to attract kids that may not be in this district,” he said. “The bottom line is: the more options kids have, the better.”

Ultimately, Caldwell and his fellow board members will have to weigh whether the advantages of creating a selective high school outweigh the costs. While the school has the potential to recapture some students who now attend private, parochial or charter schools, it also could drain higher-performing students from district schools, steepening challenges for existing schools.

The few details available so far about the planned 500-student school suggest that it would generally serve wealthier families than do existing district schools. The Crosstown school would aim for a student population with at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to documents provided to the board. In contrast, 65 percent of students across the district come from families that poor.

Its midtown location is just a few blocks north of Northwest Prep Academy, a priority school scoring in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. But it is also less than two miles from Central High, a century-old selective school that scored in the state’s top 5 percent in academic gains in 2015.

And its location, in a high-rise building being redeveloped in a former Sears warehouse built in the 1920s, is likely to be a pull for families who live in midtown neighborhoods, an area east of downtown Memphis that serves as a hub for the arts, higher education and cultural attractions. Crosstown High would be located on the fourth and fifth floors of the Crosstown Concourse building, joining other tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

After Gestalt decided last year not to use the space, a group of private funders approached Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson about creating a contract school governed by an independent board of directors, with operations funded by Shelby County Schools, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

Shelby County school board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent board meeting.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent meeting.

The arrangement could be a boon to Shelby County Schools. Contract schools are similar to charter schools in that they are operated by third-party organizations, but unlike charter schools, they remain part of the district. That means that the district retains funding for students in contract schools — and credit for their successes.

Hopson declined to discuss the proposal over the weekend, but a memorandum before the school board calls it a “unique opportunity to create a college preparatory school that, by virtue of its location in the Crosstown Concourse building, can leverage partnerships with well-respected organizations including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur, the Church Health Center, and local universities to provide a rich educational experience for students.”

The memorandum provides a starting point to discuss the Crosstown proposal, according to Caldwell.

“It’s not a forgone conclusion that it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a board decision. I’m only one member of the board, and I think that it ought to be an interesting discussion.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.