Why it matters

Memphis schools don’t have 27,000 empty seats as Hopson cites — but they could in five years

One of the most touted numbers to justify Shelby County Schools’ soon-to-be released facilities analysis isn’t what you think.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson repeatedly has said the district has 27,000 more seats than students when explaining the need to “right-size” the district by closing more schools as enrollment shrinks. School board members frequently cite that number as well.

In actuality, the number of empty seats last school year was about 22,000, says Michelle Stuart, the district’s manager of facility planning and property management.

Stuart says the 27,000 number projects how many empty seats the district could have if it stays the course over the next five years without taking action.

The current number of empty seats is based on the total enrollment capacity of the district’s non-charter schools with empty seats, minus their enrollment. Last year, more than two-thirds of those schools — 97 out 141 — had available seats, Stuart said.

The numbers will serve as a baseline for conversations this fall about future school closures.

The year-long facilities study is scheduled to be released in September, and Hopson has said the district needs to close 20 to 24 schools over the next five years. (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk.)

“The No. 1 driver behind the study is academic achievement … (to) increase the quality of the seat that is available,” said Stuart, whose office is spearheading the analysis with the help of a consultant.

Since 2012, at least 22 Memphis schools have been shuttered. But last school year was the first in which the district began to track the academic performance of students moved out of closed schools.

While improved academic achievement is the overall goal, the need for action was created by the convergence of dwindling enrollment, aging school buildings and a shrinking budget.

District leaders have projected an enrollment of 107,000 this school year, down 2 percent from 109,489 in the 2015-16 school year. That compares with an enrollment of nearly 150,000 in 2013-14 when legacy Shelby County Schools merged with Memphis City Schools, and 116,000 in 2014-15 when six suburban towns pulled out to open their own school systems.

"The No. 1 driver behind the study is academic achievement … (to) increase the quality of the seat that is available."Michelle Stuart, Shelby County Schools

Chronically low student test scores helped create the conditions that got enrollment to this point. The district’s large number of “priority” schools — which are schools that rank academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent — made Memphis a hub for school turnaround work when Tennessee’s legislature created its Achievement School District in 2010. The ASD has since taken control of 28 Memphis schools, draining the local district of about 11,400 students.

Last school year, Shelby County Schools became more aggressive with strategies to retain students while also working to turn around some schools through the district’s Innovation Zone and closing other under-enrolled and low-performing schools amid a budget crunch.

“We’ve had a plan of where we’re going. We just haven’t had a document laying out the five-year vision,” Stuart said.

School closures generally have been a contentious process, with neighborhood leaders criticizing the district for making the calls before getting public input and working with communities on school improvement plans.

District leaders have pledged to engage the community on the front end this time.

“We do want to have more community buy-in,” Stuart said. “We have all these empty seats. We can’t continue to operate effectively.”

As the school system completes its facilities analysis, its planners will work with city planners beginning in September when the City of Memphis gets started on its first comprehensive plan since 1981. That plan could guide the city’s growth for the next quarter century, including population and housing shifts that help the district determine where schools are needed.

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.