moving on

As Memphis’ last public housing project closes, neighborhood schools and families scramble

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tiara Edmond (right) and her children Jamal, 16, and Joemaya, 9, stand outside their apartment in the Foote Homes housing project.

In the shadow of historic Booker T. Washington High School, Foote Homes has been home to tens of thousands of students to attend downtown Memphis schools since the 1940s.

But that’s about to change.

The 46-acre development is the city’s last remaining public housing project and is due to close in September to make room for mixed-income housing, forcing the relocation of about 330 students.

The impact on three downtown schools, including the city’s first black public high school under segregation, is uncertain as Shelby County Schools begins its new school year next week. But the back-to-school timing of the transition, combined with confusion about the city’s relocation process and the lack of a school impact study, has school leaders bracing for more enrollment challenges in a district that already struggles to get students registered and starting school on time.

Only weeks before her son was hoping to start his junior year at Booker T. Washington, Foote Homes resident Vanessa Nelson was still trying to figure out how to get a housing voucher to relocate. Asked where her son Elliott would be attending school next year, Nelson was blunt.

“I don’t know,” she said, while walking to a recent neighborhood housing fair.

Many Foote Homes residents still were receiving their housing vouchers in late July, just as Shelby County Schools made its last big push to register for school. Families are supposed to be out by September, a month after the school year starts.

Booker T. Washington High School, where President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to graduates in 2011, stands to bear the brunt of the relocation impact, along with Downtown and LaRose elementary schools.

Booker T. Washington High School Principal Alishia Kiner
PHOTO: Katie Kull
Principal Alisha Kiner outside Booker T. Washington High School

Leaders of the 600-student high school, which had an enrollment of 561 last school year, have aggressively tried to address confusion over relocation by calling parents, hosting registration block parties, and keeping the school office open for registration during summer break.

“Even if they have to move and transfer, at least they haven’t missed a lot of school,” principal Alisha Kiner said this week. “We’ve been real pushy in that regard because we don’t want to lose kids.”

The efforts appear to be working. Just days before the first bell rings, registration numbers were actually up over the same time last year. Even so, Kiner expects to lose many Foote Homes students this fall, and she’s talking frequently with administrators at other schools where her kids might end up.

“If we’re going to meet kids, and we know they have issues when they have to move, then we just have to know how to support them. So part of that is not being selfish,” said Kiner, adding that dealing with high student mobility is a regular challenge for Memphis schools.

Shifting priorities

The razing of Foote Homes is part of the city’s decade-long effort to redevelop its South Main Historic District, which lies about a mile away in downtown Memphis. South Main includes a mosaic of shops, restaurants and art galleries anchored by the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It’s now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Foote Homes stands in stark contrast to the tourist-friendly district area. Built in the 1940s, the 420-unit development features rows of deteriorating brick apartments lining both sides of Danny Thomas Boulevard. Over the years, they’ve housed famous Memphians including civil rights activist Benjamin Hooks and Stax musician Rufus Thomas. Last renovated in the 1990s, the buildings have fallen into disrepair.

The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s to serve as low-income housing for African-American families.
PHOTO: Katie Kull
The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of low-income Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s.

The Foote Homes redevelopment plan — which includes the construction of 460 mixed-housing units and amenities such as green spaces and a fitness trail — has been beset by challenges. Earlier work to raze and redevelop several other Memphis housing projects had sapped most of the city’s federal grant money by the time leaders got to Foote Homes. That forced the city to seek additional funding for the $60 million-plus project and has contributed to the local community’s uncertainty about its future.

This spring, residents finally received their 90-day notices to leave the public housing project, but most opted to wait until they had a voucher in hand to start looking for a new place to live. It wasn’t until late July that the last of them had received a voucher.

“We’re not saying they have to be out by any specific date, but we’d like them to be out by September,” said Dorian Jenkins, interim director of the Memphis Housing Authority, adding that demolition will start “as soon as all the families are out.”

Throughout the summer, Foote Homes has been a neighborhood in transition. On a recent sweltering summer day, Housing Authority staff could be seen inspecting empty units and clearing out others while children played outside. Many apartments were still occupied.

Across the street, Streets Ministries has continued to maintain services for Foote Homes kids at its downtown site.

“I think it’s all been pretty muddy,” director Latoya McCutcheon said of the relocation.

“And I don’t want to say that they didn’t do a good job of preparing the families. I just think there was a disconnect between what will actually happen and what you should do to prepare for that transition. Something wasn’t communicated to the point where the residents actually understood that they would have to be out by September. Because of that, a lot of the families are just kind of left in chaos,” she said.

Dropping the ball

The Foote Homes relocation coincided with a change in leadership at the Housing Authority as former director Robert Lipscomb stepped down in late August 2015. Lipscomb had spearheaded the city’s efforts to tear down and redevelop its public housing and had been lauded by school leaders for his organization and communication in previous relocations.

“To his credit, Robert Lipscomb was focused on some of the legacy schools,” school Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a June interview on a Funky Politics podcast. “But obviously when he resigned, I don’t think anybody has picked up the ball on that.”

Hopson said Shelby County Schools was largely left out of the Foote Homes planning as the project began to gain traction and relocation deadlines were set. “There was no comprehensive plan,” he said.

Chris Caldwell, whose school board district encompasses Foote Homes and Booker T., expressed surprise that the relocation was moving forward. “It hasn’t come before the board, so I would hope there would be in communication with the district,” he said.

Children snack on donuts at a housing fair at Booker T. Washington High School in late July in an effort to relocate families from the Foote Homes housing project.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Children snack on donuts at a housing fair at Booker T. Washington High School in late July in an effort to relocate families from the Foote Homes.

By default, the district has taken on a more reactive role with Foote Homes residents, waiting until they’ve found their new homes before helping register their students for school. “Once they’ve identified where they want to live, it’s our job to help to make sure that they’re ready for Aug. 8,” said spokeswoman Natalia Powers, adding that residents can relocate within a 50-mile radius.

That could further drain the district of students. Shelby County Schools already has thousands of empty seats due to decades of declining enrollment.

Foote Homes resident Tiara Edmond, a mother of two children, said her family was open to a move and a change of schools from KIPP Memphis Collegiate charter schools. But by the end of July when she hadn’t received her housing voucher, she decided to send her kids back to KIPP. Edmond has a car and said she could drive her kids to their current school, no matter where her family ends up living.

Other schools in the Foote Homes community already have been impacted.

Moving Ahead School of Scholars Learning Academy, a K-3 charter school that operated in the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, closed in June after only one year of operation due to declining enrollment — and the expectation of even fewer students next year. Leaders opted to surrender their charter in hopes of reopening another school in the future to serve low-income families. But their hearts are still in downtown neighborhoods, including Foote Homes.

“The kids were awesome — I loved every moment of it,” said principal Lorene Essex, explaining that the 60-student school and small classes fostered a family-like environment.

”The families were wonderful and loving to work with. I’m going to miss them very much.”

Education on screen

School segregation at center of new documentary from collective founded by Ava DuVernay

PHOTO: ARRAY

Sixty years to the day after the Little Rock Nine integrated a high school in Arkansas, a documentary chronicling how many of America’s school systems have segregated again is set to debut at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The film, “Teach Us All,” is the basis of what first-time filmmaker Sonia Lowman hopes will be a national student-led movement to integrate schools. The film is being released with a social action curriculum meant to help students gather information about their own school systems and push for change.

“We are at a point where we are regressing, where we’re at risk of eroding the gains of the civil rights movement,” Lowman said.

In the film, Lowman looks at Little Rock schools separated by race and class, both when the Supreme Court cut down school segregation laws and more recently. But it’s not just the South: the film explores segregation in New York City and Los Angeles by race, class and language.

PHOTO: ARRAY
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. where nine students integrated the then all-white school in 1957.

It also touches on the challenges schools face in attempting to integrate, and the complicated choices parents have to make about where to send their children for school.

Read our Q&A with Ruby Bridges, who at six years old was the first black student to integrate New Orleans schools.

The documentary is being distributed by ARRAY, a collective founded in 2010 by producer Ava DuVernay, an award-winning filmmaker who produced the movie “Selma” and the documentary “13th.” “Teach Us All” will be shown in 12 cities and be released on Netflix on Sept. 25.

The National Civil Rights Museum, where the film will premiere in Memphis, has taken an active role this year in hosting events that delve into issues of educational equity. Museum President Terri Freeman recently said she sees education-focused programming as a key part of their mission.

“For the museum not to have conversation about education, with the museum being an institution of education in an informal way, would be for the museum to not do what it’s supposed to,” Freeman said at a panel discussion on school segregation. “If people come to look at photographs, but there’s no change involved, then in my estimation we failed as an institution.”

You can watch the trailer below. RSVP to register to attend the Memphis screening:

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.