One school will close, one will stay open as Hopson alters plan to respond to neighborhood needs

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Claudette Boyd applauds during public comment at a Shelby County Schools board meeting regarding a vote to close Dunbar Elementary School.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson pulled his recommendation Tuesday night to close Dunbar Elementary, one of two Memphis schools on the chopping block as Shelby County Schools seeks to address district-wide issues with low enrollment, aging buildings and subpar academics.

The other school, Carnes Elementary, will close as proposed this spring following a unanimous vote by the school board.

Hopson announced that he was tabling for now his recommendation to close Dunbar. The school board already had supported shuttering the school in the first of two votes necessary for closure. But in a surprise move before the second vote, the superintendent reversed course, citing the school’s recent academic gains and looking at ways to address its high building maintenance costs.

To help the school continue to progress academically, Hopson said the district will add an hour to Dunbar’s school day, hire additional instructional coaches, and pursue a $150,000 grant to bolster literacy work. The school board will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for an additional $3.2 million to cover maintenance needs.

The change of heart means that, for now, Memphis’ historic Orange Mound neighborhood will keep its last elementary school operated by Shelby County Schools. Aspire Public Schools operates a pair of state-run charter schools at its Hanley campus in Orange Mound.

But the school still has numerous hurdles to overcome. Dunbar ranks eighth worst in the district in building efficiency when comparing the cost to repair the building with the cost to replace it. It also landed on the State Department of Education’s 2016 warning list of schools at risk of state intervention due to poor academic performance.

But unlike other Memphis schools that already have been shuttered, Dunbar does not meet all the criteria for closure, Hopson said later.

“The building is not underutilized. There is a critical mass of kids in there,” he said. “And there are whole lot of people willing to put their necks on the line to improve the school. We have a clamoring for community support. So when you have authentic community support that is actually willing to work, … that contributed to my decision.”

This is the second time in as many years that Dunbar has been on the brink of closure.

The latest reversal was met with glee by Orange Mound parents, teachers and community members who showed up in force to support their school. Last week, more than 300 people had attended a community meeting at the school to discuss the proposed closure. That’s when Hopson and his team began to piece together an alternative plan. On Monday, he met with school staff to see what kind of supports might work.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Khamari McElroy, fifth-grade student president at Dunbar Elementary School, asks school board members to keep his school open.

Khamari McElroy, a fifth-grader who is Dunbar’s student body president, spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting and said later that his superintendent made the right call. “I love going to Dunbar, and I’m so happy and excited other people know why,” he said.

Neighborhood leader Claudette Boyd said Dunbar’s history makes the school vital to Orange Mound, recently named a “Preserve America Community” by former first lady Michelle Obama.

“Dunbar was built in 1958 in the middle of a bustling African-American neighborhood,” Boyd said. “I hope every community realizes from what happened tonight the power of when a community unites around what’s best for its children.”

Joyce Coleman, who is president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, said the community must stay involved to keep the momentum going.

“We need to support our principal and her vision for the school,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t expecting this decision, but it means everything for our neighborhood and our babies.”

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

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.