Tennessee’s largest public school district is becoming a little smaller every year — this year shrinking to 110,000 students from a high of 150,000 following the 2013 merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools.
And the bleeding hasn’t stopped. Shelby County Schools budget director Lin Johnson projects another enrollment decline next school year of 1 to 2 percent, thanks mostly to the continued expansion of the state-run Achievement School District, which already operates 27 Memphis schools and is taking control of four more low-performing priority schools next school year.
To stem the tide, as well as the accompanying drain of per-pupil funding, Shelby County leaders are aggressively looking to employ the three Rs — rezoning, reconfiguring and recruiting.
On Tuesday night, the school board is scheduled to consider rezoning proposals related to Kirby Middle School and Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School, as well as reconfiguring proposals related to Raleigh Egypt High School.
Both Kirby Middle and Caldwell-Guthrie are being converted next school year to charters authorized by the ASD, while Raleigh Egypt High is part of the feeder pattern of Raleigh Egypt Middle, which is also becoming an ASD school in 2016-17.
The proposals reflect a greater sense of urgency to diminish the impact of school takeovers on Shelby County Schools, which faces a projected $86 million budget deficit next year and holds the state-run district responsible for a projected $20 million loss in state funding.
The proposals also have prompted officials with the State Department of Education to question local tactics that they say appear to be “contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.”
By state law, the ASD can take over eligible schools that are on Tennessee’s 2014 priority list of schools performing academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. All three schools in question are on that list.
Here are the specifics of Shelby County Schools’ latest strategy to retain its enrollment:
Under the recommendation before the school board, portions of Kirby Middle and Caldwell-Guthrie would be rezoned to other Shelby County schools.
Rezoning the far western part of Kirby Middle’s reach actually was considered several years before the ASD was created, since most homes there are closer to Oakhaven Middle School than Kirby. But moving ahead with the rezoning proposal now also helps Shelby County Schools retain 48 students in the transition to the ASD, says Joris Ray, assistant superintendent of academic operations.
“This rezoning option will allow students in the designated attendance zone to remain with SCS,” he told affected parents at Kirby last month at an information meeting.
The move would put Oakhaven Middle at capacity and allocate more classrooms from Oakhaven High School, which shares the building, Ray said. Oakhaven has shown significant academic growth, gaining a top TVAAS score of 5 last year.
The western portion of Caldwell-Guthrie’s domain would also be rezoned to Downtown Elementary School, retaining about 100 students with the school system.
In December, the school board directed staff to come up with options “that would provide students in schools that are entering the ASD with an opportunity to continue attending a Shelby County school.”
To address outgoing Raleigh-Egypt Middle, they proposed reconfiguring nearby Raleigh Egypt High to grades 6-12 — or to 7-12 and adding sixth grade to Egypt Elementary.
The move could dampen ASD enrollment, especially in a neighborhood that celebrated last year when Raleigh Egypt High escaped state intervention by increasing student test scores.
The Tennessee Department of Education released a statement on behalf of the ASD regarding the proposed reconfiguration: “We are certainly disappointed in the implied reason behind the possible grade configuration change in the Raleigh-Egypt schools,” the statement said, adding that local districts have the authority to do so but that a “reconfiguration in an attempt to divert students from an ASD school is contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.”
Meanwhile, at a work session last week, school board members voiced support of the recommendation and praised Hopson’s initiative to help retain students.
In another effort to retain Kirby Middle students, another Shelby County Schools principal is seeking to recruit students to stay within the district through its general choice transfer process.
Hickory Ridge Middle principal Cedric Smith recently sent a letter to Kirby Middle parents touting his school’s programs, staff and culture and urging parents to consider enrolling their child there instead of Kirby Middle, which is being converted to an ASD-authorized charter school operated by Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based network that already operates three Memphis schools.
In an April 4 letter with a Shelby County Schools letterhead, Smith wrote: “I would like to keep your child in a school district that is competent and confident in what we are doing.”
Shelby County Schools did not respond to a request for a comment about Smith’s letter.
In its statement, the State Department of Education cautioned that local districts are expected to “communicate accurate information to families about their choices, inclusive of the ASD, and avoid any communication that would confuse or mislead parents about the options for their children.”