About 35 frustrated parents and teachers from Manor Lake Elementary School made it clear to district officials in a recent meeting that they don’t want their school merged with a nearby middle school.

The reaction from Manor Lake parents dashed hopes that a proposal from other parents to combine the school with Geeter Middle School would gain support.

The parents who made the proposal are part of a larger leadership group representing the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which both schools will enter next year. Also in that group are students, teachers, and community leaders who represent a cluster of low-performing neighborhood schools.

Shelby County Schools officials had hoped that a proposal generated by parents would help win support from other parents in the neighborhood because parents rarely support closing a school.

Some of the parents at Manor Lake told district officials they fear the influence of older students if their school is combined with Geeter.

The district hopes that if the schools in that zone work together, test scores will improve. Parent and community leaders said the consolidation would stave off closure by the district, which would scatter students to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood.

District leaders saw the move as a way to avoid state takeover by combining resources into one building, allowing them to direct more money to improving academic performance. Both Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle feed into Fairley High School, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addresses Manor Lake Elementary parents.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the ASD,” said Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone.

Manor Lake teacher Lisa Chalmers said even though the proposal would allow students to stick together, she was worried about the blight of another empty building in an area that has experienced many school closures in recent years.

“I know they [the state] want our schools. But we want our schools too,” she said.

District leaders described the school’s declining test scores, poor building condition, and low enrollment as other reasons for combining the schools, which are both at risk of closure. Teachers in the audience attributed the lack of academic growth to adding students from at least two schools that had been closed in recent years.

Either way, the schools will face disruption going into next school year. As part of entering the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone next year, all teachers at both schools will have to re-apply to their positions — a common practice among turnaround programs.

The meeting last week was the second convened by district leaders after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the proposal to the school board last month. Parents said the proposal came as a surprise and that they didn’t know about the first meeting held soon after Hopson’s announcement.

Proponents of combining elementary and middle grades say if students change schools fewer times between kindergarten and 12th grade, they perform better on tests. But studies on the topic are mixed. A 2011 University of Minnesota review of relevant studies said more research is needed to be definitive.

Sherrie Jackson, who despite not living in Manor Lake’s boundary chose the school for her two children, called the idea “ludicrous” because she didn’t want her rising kindergartner to be in the same building as eighth graders.

“What if one of these small children get hurt with those big kids over there?” she asked. “The more kids you have in the school, the less one-on-one time they get.”

Hunter said elementary and middle school students would be on separate floors of the building, a similar set up to the district’s 13 other K-8 schools.

“The only thing that’s going to make you feel totally better is when you see it and live it,” he told Jackson during the meeting. Still, Jackson and others said they would take their students elsewhere if the district goes through with the proposal.

“I’m just going to have to look around, probably transfer her, see where I can find a school for her to go to that’s K through fifth grade,” said Kimeri Golden, whose daughter is a third-grader at Manor Lake, after the meeting.

The school board is scheduled to give its final vote on the proposal at its regular meeting in April.