Watch list

Shelby County Schools says it needs to close more schools. Here are 25 that are at risk.

As Shelby County Schools embarks on a process to cut costs by closing schools, two dozen Memphis schools already have three strikes against them.

Twenty-five schools have test scores so low that the state could require them to be overhauled; enroll fewer than 70 percent as many students as their buildings can hold; and operate in space that would cost more than $1 million on average to bring up to date, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of district data.

Those schools could be most vulnerable for closure in the near future as the district looks for ways to reduce costs and capacity in response to declining student enrollment. They include Raleigh Egypt High School, East High School, Bruce Elementary School and 12 iZone schools.

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The district is preparing to release a study of its space footprint this fall as part of a “right-sizing” process that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson jumpstarted this spring. He has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. Already this year, the district is closing two schools and one center serving adult students in an effort to trim costs.

The district considers enrollment, maintenance costs, and test score performance when deciding which schools to close. School board member Kevin Woods said there is no cut-and-dry threshold for low enrollment that makes a school eligible for closure, although previous closures since 2012 have included schools with utilization rates up to 71 percent.

District officials have declined to comment on schools’ utilization rates before releasing the footprint study this fall. (After this story was published, officials released a statement reiterating that they will release a plan that includes collaboration with the community. “Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts,” the statement said.)

The district-run schools the school board decided this year to shutter — Northside and Carver high schools — were each using less than a third of their space and together needed $8.6 million in repairs. After Northside closes in a year, both buildings will sit empty while the district decides whether to repurpose or demolish them.

Northside and Carver are the most under-enrolled schools in the district, with only 23 and 31 percent of seats filled, respectively.

Hamilton Middle School is the next least crowded, with 383 students using a building designed for nearly 1,200. (At the other end of the spectrum is Wells Station Elementary School, where 754 students are crammed into a building meant for half as many.)

Hamilton was one of the district’s first schools in its vaunted Innovation Zone initiative, in which some low-performing schools are getting extra money to boost student scores. That initiative could complicate the district’s decision-making in the coming years: Twelve of the schools with three strikes are in the iZone, meaning that a decision to close them would undercut the district’s own recent investments. The district is also planning to add new grades and programs to other schools meeting all three closure conditions, suggesting that the district might intend to keep them open.

Shelby County’s many underused and poorly maintained buildings have played a major role in this year’s budget negotiations. Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which supplies most of the funding for school facilities, have questioned why they should contribute more to the district when it could move more quickly to close underused schools.

“Without a budget deficit, you’re not closing schools,” Commissioner David Reaves told Hopson during a hearing about whether the commission should allocate more money to school operations. “I don’t believe without a burning reason to do it that your board gets the job done.”

Below, find the district-run schools that are using no more than 70 percent of their space. Schools that also are on the state’s “priority” list of low-performing schools or in danger of joining it and would require more than $1 million to bring up to date are in bold.

  1. Northside High School
  2. Carver High School
  3. Hamilton Middle School
  4. Vollentine Elementary School
  5. Westwood High School
  6. East High School
  7. Magnolia Elementary School
  8. Mt. Pisgah Middle School
  9. Hamilton High School
  10. Woodstock Middle School
  11. Carnes Elementary School
  12. Trezevant High School
  13. Dexter Middle School
  14. Getwell Elementary School
  15. A. B. Hill Elementary School
  16. Northaven Elementary School
  17. Manor Lake Elementary School
  18. Manassas High School
  19. Mitchell High School
  20. Melrose High School
  21. Cordova Middle School
  22. Lucy Elementary School
  23. Raleigh-Egypt High School
  24. Alcy Elementary School
  25. Geeter Middle School
  26. Bruce Elementary School
  27. Hawkins Mill Elementary School
  28. Treadwell Middle School
  29. Bethel Grove Elementary School
  30. Chickasaw Middle School
  31. Double Tree Elementary School
  32. Douglass High School
  33. Alton Elementary School
  34. Oakhaven High School
  35. Southwind High School
  36. LaRose Elementary School

You can see all 142 district-run school’s enrollment data and maintenance costs here. Pay special attention to the “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost of the building. The higher the number, the less cost effective it is for the district to keep the building open.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement issued Wednesday by Shelby County Schools.

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

construction zone

New Memphis school buildings get green light on design funds

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County leaders took the first step Monday toward rebuilding two Memphis elementary schools by approving $1.5 million for design work.

Early on, the Board of Commissioners signaled support for the new construction and consolidation proposed last fall by Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. The plan is designed to invest in existing schools while also reducing the district’s overall footprint and addressing expensive aging buildings.

The heftier price tag to construct the schools, which Hopson estimates at $43.2 million, will be considered by county leaders after the school board approves the district’s budget later this month.

The new Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools could open as early as fall 2018. Both schools would remain open as the new buildings are constructed on another part of the property.

The school board has not approved closing the schools meant to feed into the new buildings, but members have expressed support for the plan.

The new Alcy would also serve students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools as those buildings are demolished. The new Goodlett would include students from Knight Road Elementary, which would be demolished, along with some students from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools.