school closures

Half of Memphis schools closed since 2012 stand empty, with more closures on the way

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since it closed in 2014.

Vance Middle School once served as the anchor for its surrounding neighborhood until the school was shuttered in 2014 by Shelby County Schools, sending its students to another school about a mile away.

With a vital hub for youngsters now empty, students have a longer hike to school and “some have to walk very far,” says James Nesbit, longtime director of a neighborhood youth center across the street from Vance, who also mentioned he believed crime had gone up in the neighborhood since Vance’s closure.

“That takes time away that they could have been here, working on homework or playing,” Nesbit said. “There used to be a unified identity for our kids. No more.”

Vance represents half of at least 21 district-run schools closed in Memphis since 2012. Most sit empty as Tennessee’s largest district prepares for a more systematic review of its school buildings and their usage.

Ten are vacant, four have been turned into alternative schools, four are now charter schools, and two have been demolished. Coro Lake Elementary is slated to be demolished after a September vote by district board members. One other, Fairview Junior High, was converted into the district’s esteemed Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.

The vast majority of school closures have occurred in the South Memphis/Whitehaven area.

Shelby County Schools’ highly anticipated footprint analysis is slated to be released later this month and is expected to lay out plans to close up to 24 more schools over the next five years. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the analysis will also include proposals for its vacant buildings, and that the district will seek community input about the possibilities.

“We’ve had a few requests from different people for different facilities, but we don’t want to make decisions in silos,” Hopson said. “We’re going to engage the community like we never have before. And part of that engagement is going to be on — to the extent that these buildings closed — what do you want to see in your community?”

The district also is working with the City of Memphis on its first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

Hopson said the plan for empty schools will be to “repurpose some of these buildings and to anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.”

When the now-empty schools initially were closed, district officials recommended selling six of them to charters. But that never came to pass. Instead, some of those, including Graves Elementary, have remained boarded up. Coro Lake Elementary, which sits in a lakefront community, is up for sale.

Vacant properties require security patrol and lawn maintenance but otherwise little upkeep, according to Cerita Butler, the district’s director of business operations and procurement services. And there are some operational costs too, such as utilities, adds Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson.

The rest of the buildings have been repurposed. Airways Middle is now an alternative school and serves as one of the district’s regional offices. Officials announced last month that Carver High, which closed over the summer, will temporarily house an alternative school. The kitchen and cafeteria space at Northside High, also recently closed, is the site of the district’s take-home supper plan.

Two have been rented out and turned into new charter schools authorized by the state-run Achievement School District.

Reporter Katie Kull contributed to this report.

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.