George Washington Carver High School, an anchor of the Riverview neighborhood of South Memphis since the late 1950s, is the latest casualty of closings aimed at shuttering low-performing and under-enrolled schools within Shelby County Schools.
The school board on Thursday voted 5-3 with one abstention to shut down the 198-student school that has almost 1,000 empty seats. The vote came almost two weeks after Carver’s last bell rang with the end of the school year.
Students will be rezoned to nearby Hamilton High, which is under the district’s Innovation Zone turnaround model.
“This is obviously one of the most emotional decisions the school board has to make,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said before the vote. “But I ask the board not be guided by emotion but what is best for kids.”
While Carver supporters had asked for another year to make improvements, Hopson urged the board to stick with his recommendation. “Under these conditions, I cannot in good conscience delay closure even for a year,” he said.
Carver was one of 15 remaining schools without a turnaround plan on Tennessee’s original list of 69 Memphis priority schools, issued in 2012 to identify the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. Most have since been shuttered or moved to one of two turnaround models, the state-run Achievement School District and the iZone operated by Shelby County Schools.
But supporters have argued that the school’s decline was caused by a lack of investment by the district. After the vote, one community leader said that supporters are exploring legal action.
“We’re going to take it to court. We’ll take this as far as we can,” said Ralph White, an alumnus and pastor who has led the charge. “It’s all by their design and we want to expose that.”
Carver becomes the only district-run K-12 school among six Memphis schools shuttered this year. The school board voted earlier this spring to revoke the charters of four charter schools, as well to close Messick Adult Center. The closure of Northside High School, also approved this spring, is to take effect after next school year, but school board members indicated Thursday they will revisit that issue.
Carver had been on the chopping block two other times since 2012, but the school had consistently managed to rally. Even this year, a community plan crafted in an attempt to resuscitate the school prompted board members to delay the vote twice as officials reviewed the suggestions. But Hopson told the school board at a May 24 work session that the plan was not adequate.
“I think that the proposal, while well thought out, is flawed for several reasons,” Hopson said. “At the end of the day, I don’t see any viable path to change my recommendation.”
Last year, 400 students zoned for Carver found other school options, which Hopson said suggests that expanding the zone will not increase enrollment. And because of low enrollment, the school has one of the highest per-student spending in the district.
“Carver is one of our most expensive schools to run,” Hopson said. “Carver simply is not serving kids well because there are not enough kids at Carver.”
With the closure of Carver, 21 Memphis schools operated by the local district have been shuttered since 2012. South Memphis has been particularly hard hit, sustaining nearly half of the closures.
As a low-performing and under-utilized school, Carver was ripe for closure as the cash-strapped district struggled to deal with an $86 million budget shortfall for 2016-17. According to the most recent state data, the school ranked fourth from the bottom in test scores from across Tennessee. Its capacity was more than than triple its student population, and the building was listed with $3.5 million in deferred maintenance needs.
Board members Shante Avant, Teresa Jones and Miska Clay Bibbs voted against the closure, with Stephanie Love abstaining. Avant, whose district includes Carver, acknowledged the reasoning behind Hopson’s recommendation, but said “I also understand the emotional connection people have in this community.”
District administrators estimated that closing Northside and Carver would save the district $1.7 million, but the delay of Northside’s closure has negated part of that savings.
Even so, 18 out of Northside’s 20 teachers have left the school already, leaving the district scrambling to recruit teachers for the short-term assignment. Half of Carver’s teachers also had requested a transfer pending the school’s closure, Hopson said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include that the school board plans to revisit the planned 2017 closure of Northside High School.