Community voices

Did Hopson jump the gun on proposing more school closures? Some Memphians think so.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Memphians in Frayser attend a community meeting organized in October by Shelby County Schools. The district hosted nine meetings to seek public input about what makes a good school.

Claudette Boyd was excited to have her voice heard at a community meeting in October to offer public input on the future of Shelby County Schools.

“Communities need stable schools,” she told district leaders that night. “Schools shouldn’t be graded solely on their test scores. Schools are the pillars of neighborhoods.”

A month later, Boyd said feels like her feedback was dismissed.

District leaders had promised to summarize public input from nine community meetings in a report that would help guide major decisions in a district with too many schools and too few students.

But on Wednesday, three weeks before the report’s expected release, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the first step in his plan to begin “right-sizing” Tennessee’s largest school district. The recommendations, which now go to the school board, include closing seven schools, some of which would be consolidated into three new schools, and numerous rezonings. In all, 13 schools and up to 4,600 students would be impacted.

Beyond the community meetings, Hopson had promised that his administration would consider a year-long building analysis when recommending changes to the district’s footprint, which he has said must shrink by up to 24 schools over the next five years. The analysis, whose public release has been delayed twice this fall, is still under wraps.

Hopson’s plan includes two outright closures: Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools. Dunbar is the only district-run school in Memphis’ Orange Mound community. If the school board approves the change, its students would be rezoned to Bethel Grove and Cherokee elementary schools.

“There were a lot of Dunbar teachers at that meeting speaking up for their school,” said Boyd, a community activist in Orange Mound. “It crushes the community spirit, to keep feeling like what we want or feel is right doesn’t actually matter.”

Memphians have lamented for decades about local school administrators engaging them about closing schools only after they’ve already made their decisions. The top-down process has been a sore spot because, along with churches, those schools are often the hubs of community life in Memphis. When schools are closed, blight generally follows and students must travel further to get to their new schools.

Hopson told reporters Wednesday that his initial plan is a “no-brainer” due to costly maintenance needs at those schools. The timeline is necessary, he said, in order to get funding from county commissioners to build new schools. He characterized his recommendations as separate from the larger conversation to come on the long-term plan for overhauling the district’s facility footprint.

School board member Miska Clay Bibbs said Hopson’s announcement, delivered during a school board committee meeting, is intended to build in more time to talk through the plan. The school board had asked for a longer runway in the future after receiving surprise recommendations last spring to close Carver and Northside high schools at the end of the school year. These recommendations are different from Carver and Northside, she said.

“We were absolutely upset about that (last school year),” Bibbs said Thursday. “I think (Hopson) is honoring his word. It’s a lot of things at play in order to make that happen and you have to do that in a timely manner. You can’t wait to the last minute.”

Bibbs said the community meetings were intended to kick off an ongoing conversation around what makes a better school — not to focus solely on which schools should close or stay open.

Edward Vaughn, who heads the alumni association for recently closed Carver High School, disagrees. He says the superintendent shouldn’t announce potential closures ahead of the public release of the facilities study.

“We think we deserve to see the full picture,” Vaughn said. “We don’t think the superintendent is being very transparent because we have heard that nothing would happen before this analysis. We question the urgency. Why now? Why not have the full analysis out there before proposing more school closures?”

School board members are scheduled to discuss Hopson’s plan at their Nov. 29 work session, and to cast their first of two votes on the proposal on Dec. 6.

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.