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 Superintendent Dorsey Hopson rescinded his recommendation to close the Orange Mound school in 2016, but recent data shows it could be eligible for a consolidation plan.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.

school closures

What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

PHOTO: Katie Kull/Chalkbeat
After Vance Middle School closed, math scores of students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School went up, while reading scores went down. (Pictured here in 2016)

Student reading test scores from three closed schools in Memphis generally improved in their new school, but math scores decreased, according to a 2017 Shelby County Schools report Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson requested the study in 2016 as the district’s model for closing schools evolved to include combining students from several buildings and assigning them to one new school, but the report was never presented publicly.

The report concluded that “overall, transferring students from underperforming to more stable schools seems to improve outcomes for transferred students, and in some cases, students attending the schools accepting them.” It went on to say that “we recommend continued, concentrated academic support for students transferring from failing schools.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have framed school closures in Memphis as painful but necessary as the district seeks to free up money to support a majority of students who come from poor families. But more often than not, students were assigned to go to schools that had similar or worse test scores than the school they were leaving.


From the archives: Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012


Hopson said the lesson from those school closures was that a new model was needed.

“You get so much backlash and it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building,” Hopson said recently. “So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money. But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.”

That model worked for Westhaven Elementary, which has boosted test scores faster than most schools in Tennessee both years it has been open. The school combined Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven elementary schools, which were among the lowest performing in the state, into one new building.

Hopson’s massive facilities plan presented last month would replicate that model in 10 more neighborhoods in what he says will prevent the mixed results seen with other school closures.


Related: The inside peek at how Westhaven Elementary became the new model for school closures


The study doesn’t include all 17 schools that have closed during Hopson’s tenure. The state canceled testing in 2016 for students in third through eighth grades, making tracking their performance over time more difficult, Hopson said. The report examined student test scores from Graves Elementary and Vance Middle, which closed in 2014, and Northside High, which closed in 2016.

Little research focuses on the effects of school closures on student achievement. However, a 2009 report suggests that Chicago students benefited when they transferred to significantly higher-performing schools. In New York City, a 2015 study found that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked schools actually benefited students forced to enroll elsewhere.

Here’s how students performed at each of the schools in the Memphis study:

Graves Elementary School

About 70 Graves Elementary students, or 35 percent, enrolled at Ford Road Elementary, the school the district assigned for them after closure. Most of the other Graves students enrolled at other schools within the district.

Reading and math scores on Tennessee’s TNReady test rose for the Graves students at Ford Road, which already had additional district resources as part of the Innovation Zone, created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest performing schools.

While reading scores for the rest of Ford Road Elementary rose about four percentage points during that year, math scores dipped at the same rate, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Northside High School

About 80 students from Northside High School, or 43 percent, enrolled at Manassas High, as outlined in the district’s plan for re-assigning students.

Of those former Northside High students, the percent of students on grade level increased by about 5 percentage points, but algebra test scores remained flat. Other students at Manassas High saw a small increase in reading scores, but algebra proficiency dropped from 4 percent to 0 percent, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Vance Middle School

Vance Middle School students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School after their school closed in 2014 saw their math scores go up and reading scores go down.

There were no middle school students to compare them to at B.T. Washington because Vance students were the first middle school class at the downtown school.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

You can read Shelby County Schools’ full report below.

Charter Schools

City University Boys charter school appeals to Tennessee board to stay open

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
City University Boys Preparatory enrolled 88 students as of August.

A small middle school for boys has appealed the decision of Shelby County Schools not to renew its 10-year charter.

City University Schools filed its appeal to the State Board of Education late Friday, calling the district “unfair” for not renewing one its two middle schools — effectively closing it after the end of this school year.

“We look forward to… an opportunity to share our vantage point that we believed hampered our ability to garner the immediate renewal from Shelby County Schools for which we believe …our school earned and is qualified,” the appeal said.

If the appeal is successful, the middle school for boys, which as of August enrolled 88 students, could remain open for another 10 years.

A hearing with the state board will be set for January, said a board spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing charter schools, but lately has ramped up oversight to evaluate charter school applications, and existing schools with low test scores and poor operations. When charter schools open, they are awarded 10-year charters, making this the first time a charter school has existed long enough under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s administration to be eligible for renewal.

Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has only overturned 15 out of 72 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter. That includes a vote in 2012 about two City University schools, when the state board kicked back a decision to the Memphis school board.

The Shelby County Schools board voted 6-3 earlier this month to close City University Boys Preparatory in line with a recommendation from district staff, after looking at 10 years of state test data, finances, and measures of school environment such as student discipline. (Three other schools’ charters were renewed.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lemoyne Robinson, chancellor of City University charter schools.

Lemoyne Robinson, the charter network’s chancellor, said the district was partially to blame for low test scores because it defaulted on promised academic interventions and resources that he said were part of an annual fee the school paid to the district. The network’s appeal describes expectations such as curriculum support for teachers and student data management systems.

When the city school system folded into the county system in 2013, those resources disappeared, Robinson said.

Chalkbeat examined the contract, but did not see the resources Robinson cited in the appeal.

“The lack of access to these resources upon which the school had relied was disruptive and greatly affected the school and the academic attainment of its scholars,” network leaders said in his letter to the state. “Within a year of the scholars’ assessment, scores regressed.”

Even if there weren’t issues with test scores, Robinson said the district failed to properly evaluate the entire 10-year history of the school by the deadline outlined in state law. That technicality should throw out the district’s case, he said. Shelby County Schools said “the school received all of the pertinent performance data for which they are held accountable.”

Below is City University’s summary of its appeal to the state board.