Empowerment Zone

In rare move, Memphis community council proposes school closure

PHOTO: Google Maps
Under the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone leadership council's proposal, Manor Lake Elementary would close and merge with Geeter Middle to create a K-8 school.

It isn’t every day that parent leaders press their school district to close a local school.

But that’s exactly what has happened in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood over the last several months, as a group of parent leaders have reckoned with the challenges facing Manor Lake Elementary School.

Beverly Davis, whose child attends Whitehaven High School, first floated the idea of shutting Manor Lake and sending its 359 students to a nearby middle school next year, after staring down data showing low test scores, low enrollment, and high costs for building maintenance.

The leadership council she helps lead for a cluster of Whitehaven schools — made up of about 30 parents, teachers, students, and community members — liked the idea.

And this week, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson turned their idea into a proposal: This fall, Manor Lake should fold into Geeter Middle School, creating a new K-8 school that would be part of the district’s Whitehaven Empowerment Zone. If the proposal is approved, the new school would join four others in a group led by Whitehaven High School Principal Vincent Hunter and the leadership council.

The saga is surprising because decisions to close schools often meet fierce resistance from communities. Two common reasons for the pushback: Parents feel left out of the conversation until the last minute, and community members fear that their school will no longer be connected to the neighborhood.

The Whitehaven story escapes both of those pitfalls. Parents have long been involved in the Empowerment Zone, and the zone’s leadership is deeply rooted in the community. (Feedback from the wider community is coming soon.)

“In order for the model to work we need to keep it as a Whitehaven model,” Davis told Chalkbeat. “Under Dr. Hunter the Whitehaven model is parents, parents, and more parents. And that’s where these other schools come short. You let parents have a voice, you let parents come to the table.”

Whitehaven’s empowerment zone is unique within Shelby County Schools, where efforts to improve struggling schools have centered on a different model, the district’s Innovation Zone. In that model, schools get more resources, new leaders and teachers, and a longer school day — but district officials alone call the shots.

Under the empowerment zone, the district shares management with a leadership council that includes 11 teachers, nine parents, six community members, and four students in Whitehaven. The council meets monthly to talk about how schools are doing and how to address challenges school staff and students are facing.

The council has had both Geeter and Manor Lake — located just a half-mile apart — on their radar for months, after the district decided that both should enter the empowerment zone next year.

Geeter is coming from the Innovation Zone, where it was in the first cohort of schools to join and would be the first to exit. After five years in the Innovation Zone, the school’s performance on state tests has barely improved, and it remains solidly in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state. Last year, less than 10 percent of students posted test scores suggesting that they are on grade level in math or language arts.

After appearing on the state’s first “priority” list in 2012 because of its low test scores, Manor Lake Elementary actually escaped the state’s most recent warning list of the lowest-scoring 10 percent of schools. Yet less than 15 percent of students were considered proficient in language arts on state tests last year.

Both schools have far fewer students than they are designed to serve. On Tuesday, Hopson said the two schools are each at less than 60 percent capacity.

And Manor Lake is especially expensive to operate. As of summer 2016, Manor Lake Elementary had more than $2.5 million in maintenance costs for the building.

Eddie Jones, the chair of the Empowerment Zone leadership council who is also a county commissioner for the area, said merging the two schools is not only financially prudent, but will result in a better environment for the neighborhood’s students.

“Now you free up resources to put in that building to adequately educate our kids,” he said. “By combining those schools … you have everything in one building.”

The school board is expected to make an initial vote on the proposal next week, kicking off community meetings before a final vote. One such meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 at Whitehaven High School.

new plan

Plan for Memphis schools would fold 28 old schools into 10 new ones

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Michelle Stuart, the district’s manager of facility planning and property management, presents a plan to consolidate 28 schools into 10 new buildings.

Shelby County Schools’ outgoing leader wants to consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited plan to avoid massive deferred maintenance costs on the district’s crumbling campuses.

If implemented, the plan could take up to 10 years, impact some 15,000 students, and cost the district at least $700 million.

“We’re building schools. We’re taking kids in the inner city who have been traditionally underserved and putting them in brand new learning facilities,” Hopson said, presenting the proposal to the Shelby County Schools board, which has the final say on school closures.

Hopson, who leaves office next month for a job at insurance giant Cigna, is proposing all but two of the closed buildings be demolished — saving the district about $102 million in deferred maintenance on those structures. Shelby County Schools business operations chief Beth Phalen estimated the consolidation would also save the district between $15 million and $20 million annually and said that money could then be in the classroom.

The proposal echoes a model Hopson and county leaders have favored — building new neighborhood schools, even if that means long-standing schools nearby would have to close. One such example is Westhaven Elementary, which opened in 2016. It combined three elementary schools and quickly became overcrowded, as families sent their students to the new building after years of choosing other schools. Westhaven Elementary was one of two schools in the district that the state has recognized two years in a row for high academic growth.


For context on previous school closures and how Shelby County Schools got here, read our primer.


PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, board members Teresa Jones, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Stephanie Love listen to the district’s consolidation plan.

Before putting the Hopson’s plan into motion, Shelby County Schools staff will propose rezoning 22 schools for next school year. That would give some 3,200 students priority to attend a school closer to home. (You can view rezoning maps here by selecting a map and clicking “open.”)

Board members Tuesday had a slew of questions about plans for individual schools, but also wondered how academic and extracurricular offerings would be maintained under the new arrangement.

“What was at the school they left and how will that be transferred to where they’re going?” said board member Teresa Jones. Hopson said that would be considered before consolidating the schools.

Notably, the plan does not include recommendations for how to merge schools with those in the state-run Achievement School District. Hopson said he spoke with state leaders yesterday about “renewing commitment” to collaborate on future building plans for the next phase.

The district would also need buy-in from the county commission, which funds new construction, and Hopson is scheduled to present the plan to the commissioners Wednesday.

Phalen said the analysis of the district’s facilities is not complete and still needs to address alternative schools, technical education, and state-run schools.

Below is a list of the schools that would feed the new ones being proposed:

  • Build a new Woodstock K-8: This is an updated version of a previous recommendation Hopson presented in 2016 to build a K-12 school at the site. The plan would consolidate all of E.E. Jeter K-8, Northaven Elementary, Lucy Elementary, and part of Woodstock Middle into the new building.
  • Build a new Raleigh-Egypt K-12 campus: Consolidate the rest of Woodstock Middle, part of Barret’s Chapel K-8, and all of Bolton High, Trezevant High, and Raleigh Egypt Middle-High, Lucy Elementary, and Egypt Elementary.
  • Build a new elementary in Orange Mound: Consolidate Bethel Grove Elementary, Dunbar Elementary, and Cherokee Elementary into a new building.
  • Build a new high school in the Parkway Village area: Consolidate all of Wooddale High, Sheffield High, and Oakhaven High into the new building.
  • Build a new JP Freeman Optional School with the existing student population.
  • Build a new elementary school in Hickory Hill: Consolidate all of Crump and Ross elementary schools into a new building.
  • Build a new high school in Cordova or convert Mt. Pisgah into a 6-12: Some students from Cordova High, Kingsbury High, White Station High, Germantown High, and Bolton High would attend the new high school. For the 6-12 option, some students from Bolton High, Germantown High, Germantown Middle, Cordova High, and Cordova Middle would be moved to Mt. Pisgah Middle.
  • And two new school buildings, Alcy Elementary and Goodlett Elementary, are already in process. The new Goodlett Elementary would bring in students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools. The new Alcy Elementary would bring in students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.

These schools would close and consolidate into existing buildings that are in better condition:

  • Consolidate Alton Elementary into A.B. Hill Elementary.
  • Consolidate Westwood High into Mitchell High.
  • Consolidate Hamilton Middle into Hamilton Elementary, making it a K-8 school.
  • Consolidate Georgian Hills Middle into Grandview Heights and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Scenic Hills Elementary into Lucie E. Campbell Elementary and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Oakshire Elementary into Whitehaven Elementary and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Gardenview Elementary into Winchester Elementary and build an addition.
  • Close Shady Grove Elementary and rezone students to Dexter Elementary and White Station Elementary.

All closed schools except Shady Grove Elementary and Ross Elementary would be demolished under the proposed plan.

Below is a map of the proposed new buildings and school closures (zoom in!). Further down is the district’s full presentation.

Source: Shelby County Schools

Chalkbeat explains

Hopson will leave a blueprint to consolidate more schools. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Dunbar Elementary School students practice ballet. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson rescinded his recommendation to close the Orange Mound school in 2016, but recent data shows it could be eligible for a consolidation plan.

Update, Dec. 11, 2018: Here’s the proposed plan to consolidate 28 schools into 10 new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is set to share a five-year plan to reduce the number of expensive, aging buildings in Shelby County Schools.

None of the buildings would close before Hopson leaves in January, but it’s possible that dozens of schools will consolidate with other schools in new buildings. That’s the pattern Hopson and county leaders have favored in response to widespread community outrage for shutting down long-standing neighborhood institutions. Advocates have argued that schools have been shut down without giving students a better place to go.

Schools have long been natural gathering spots for neighborhoods and proposals to close them almost always spark protest from parents and teachers. More than a few of the schools closed in recent years stand empty, though Shelby County Schools has lately been more aggressive about selling or demolishing the blighted buildings. Interest is growing in repurposing some of them into parks, affordable housing, or other developments, but so far there are no firm plans.


Related: A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?


Several studies, including two in Tennessee, have found a link between the condition of a school building and student achievement. Students who attend school in newer facilities score 5 to 17 points higher on standardized tests than those attending in substandard buildings. Another study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of chronic absenteeism.

To determine the schools that would be considered for consolidation, Hopson and his team have compared low enrollment to the building’s capacity, test scores, and building-repair costs. Hopson is scheduled to present that analysis to school board members Tuesday afternoon — four weeks before he leaves for a new job with insurance giant Cigna.

If trends hold true for Hopson’s final recommendations, four schools would be at the top of the list for consolidation:

  • Westwood High
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Trezevant High
  • Hamilton Middle

Those schools are among the lowest performing in the state or have been identified by Hopson as needing extra academic support. They also are more costly to repair than shut down compared to other schools, and enroll fewer than 70 percent of their capacity. All four were at risk for closure two years ago, according to our analysis of 2016 district data.

When Shelby County Schools was asked to comment on Hopson’s propoal, the district said Hopson will talk about new construction and consolidations to address inequities, but did not elaborate.

During his almost six years as superintendent, Hopson closed 17 schools, most because of low enrollment. Also in that time, enrollment increased and buildings were taken over by the state-run district. As a result, the number of district empty seats has shrunk from about 22,000 in 2015-16 to about 18,500 this school year, according to district data.

Still, facilities for Shelby County Schools students total about 16 million square feet, or about 3.2 million more square feet than the state allocates money for. That’s equal to about four FedEx Forum arenas.

Hopson’s presentation on Tuesday will help set the course for how the district can address those needs for the next five years. But there’s evidence that his strategy to close schools has expanded.

Although Hopson’s focus on test scores, enrollment, and building conditions were always part of his plan, his first recommendation in 2016 was to close five schools and consolidate them into three new buildings because of their high maintenance costs, which totaled $500 million districtwide.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, left, and Sharon Griffin, the chief of the state-run Achievement School District spoke at a panel in October hosted by Chalkbeat and New Memphis.

Then, he returned to his earlier focus on school performance, and in addition, looked to include charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District when considering what schools to consolidate. The state-run district started taking over low-performing schools from Hopson’s district in 2012. Conversations with the state-run district haven’t happened as of late November, according to Bobby White, a spokesperson for the Achievement School District.

“It’s no secret. We have too many schools. We just have too many schools whether it’s Shelby County, ASD, charter schools,” Hopson said during a recent panel event hosted by Chalkbeat and New Memphis.

“Orange Mound has Dunbar Elementary School and around the corner we have Aspire Hanley. Both of these schools are on the list, they both serve Orange Mound kids, both of the buildings are in bad shape,” he continued, referring to the state’s list of schools with extremely low test scores. “How do we sit down together and say ‘How can we create a great new learning environment for all these kids in Orange Mound?’”


Related: Sharon Griffin: ‘Students who live in poverty should learn in luxury,’ but state-run schools are far from luxurious


Hopson and his staff have often cited academics as the focus of school closures.

“You’re not saving a ton of money. … The driver has to be academics,” said Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance in 2016. “We could be reinvesting that money in the school they go to. It’s more about freeing up resources for other schools.”

But students from previously closed schools were more often rezoned to schools with similar or worse test scores than the closed school, according to our 2016 analysis. Since then, Hopson directed his staff to track test scores of students from closed schools to see if their academic performance improved. Results from that analysis have not been released yet.

School board members, who have the final say on school closures, have said they want to know the academic performance of the proposed schools students would be routed to before making a decision. They also want to know how many students zoned to the school slated for closure are attending schools outside the district. When parents and alumni were trying to save Carver High School from closing, Hopson noted 400 students zoned there were attending school elsewhere. Requests for comment from some school board members were not returned Monday.

Hopson’s presentation to school board members is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11 in room 321 at the district’s central office, 160 S. Hollywood St.