Voices and choices

Change is coming, say Memphis school leaders as community meetings launch

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Educators and parents break into small groups Monday evening during a community meeting in Frayser organized by Shelby County Schools to explore the future of the district's schools.

Leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district kicked off a series of community meetings Monday by emphasizing the goal of getting input from Memphians on what makes a great school. But another goal that was unstated quickly became apparent: preparing Memphians for inevitable changes that will come as Shelby County Schools restructures itself to make the best use of shrinking resources.

Sharon Griffin speaks at the Frayser meeting.
iZone chief Sharon Griffin speaks in Frayser.

“Unfortunately, we may have to decrease some of our schools so that we can maximize the use of those resources,” said Sharon Griffin, regional superintendent of the district’s Innovation Zone, speaking to a crowd of about 80 people in Frayser. “And even though many of our schools are showing academic gains, some of those schools will still have to merge.”

To read our coverage on Memphis school closures, visit here.

Monday’s meetings at Frayser and Cordova were the first of nine gatherings — one in each school board district — as the district prepares for seismic shifts three years after a historic school merger and two years after the exit of six municipalities creating their own school systems. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said Shelby County Schools will need to close up to 24 schools over the next five years — a plan that will be guided in large part by a year-long facilities study scheduled for release later this month.

School board member Stephanie Love clarified Monday evening that the study will serve as a status report of buildings and enrollment and will not include specific recommendations on which schools to close, merge or refigure.

The gatherings are part of the district’s effort to thaw community relations when it comes to input for big decisions, particularly related to closing schools.

“A lot of times we don’t give you the opportunity to give input. We make decisions and then we come back and tell you to live with it,” Love told attendees. “Well, we’re going to dispel all of that. Moving forward, before we make any decisions, we’re going to meet with the community. We’re going to talk to the community. We’re going to listen to the community.”

The crowd at the Frayser meeting was comprised mostly of teachers and central office staff, along with some parents and community members. They were broken into small groups to discuss what makes a high-quality school and how to make existing schools better.

The feedback will be incorporated into recommendations to the school board about which schools will be left standing and how to increase enrollment amid shrinking resources and increased competition from charter schools and other options.

School librarian Judy Walker offers input during her small group gathering.
Northaven school librarian Judy Walker offers input during her small group gathering.

“I’m here to use my voice to stand up for education and for my school and school community,” said Judy Walker, a librarian at Northaven Elementary School. “Change is coming, and decisions will have to be made.”

Some were skeptical about whether or not their voices will matter in the end.

“You have to be assured they are going to incorporate what I say in what you’re going to do,” said Leonard Smith, a retired educator. “But that hasn’t been a part of this administration.”

“It’s a good start if something’s done with the information,” said Sharon Fields, family coordinator at Libertas School of Memphis, a school under the state-run Achievement School District. “If it’s not utilized, it’s a smokescreen.”

Robocalls notified faculty and families about the community meetings as the district announced the dates last week on its website, though no specifics were provided about which schools could be on the chopping block.

The school system also released a video Monday outlining the district’s strengths, challenges and choices as part of its “Great Schools, Greater Community” campaign. Narrated by Hopson, the video invites the community to start “thinking differently” to make the most of limited resources.

Love reiterated that a new way of thinking must happen to address shrinking enrollment, decreasing funding, low-performing schools and a large number school buildings with dire capital needs.

“Reality is something is going to have to give to improve the education of our children,” she said.

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.