Shelby County Schools wants to close more schools, expand iZone

Shelby County School administrators want to shutter two chronically underperforming schools, transform two under-enrolled schools, pull hundreds of students from three schools being taken over by the state, and re-enroll those students at schools nearby.

A sweeping proposal to rejigger where students attend schools in several low-income neighborhoods was presented Tuesday during a work session of the Shelby County School Board.

The plan could prevent the district from losing hundreds more students to the state’s Achievement School District (ASD), which is tasked with taking over chronically underperforming schools either by directly operating the schools or handing them over to charter organizations, which are publicly funded but independently operated organizations.

The board is scheduled to vote March 31 on the proposed changes.

Almost all of the students affected would be moved to Memphis’ Innovation Zone, known as the iZone, a costly but mostly effective effort to improve academic outcomes through interventions such as overhauling teaching staff, bringing in a new principal, and providing special flexibilities from state laws.

The ASD has agreed not to interfere with schools in the district’s iZone, which have outperformed several ASD schools.

“At some of these [district] schools, 80 percent of these kids can’t read,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the board. “That’s not cutting it. … The question is: Do you want your school to be operated by the Izone or the ASD? That’s the question we have to ask. If you look at the results of iZone, I think the results speak for itself.”

Administrators asked the board to close Lincoln Elementary School, one of the state’s lowest performing schools, and move the students to A.B. Hill Elementary School, which would be brought into the iZone. They proposed closing South Side Middle School, where only one-fourth of the students are meeting basic state expectations, and to move its students to Riverview Middle School, which currently operates as an iZone school.

Hopson asked the board to pull students from Brookmeade and Spring Hill Elementary and Airways Middle schools, which are being taken over by the state a grade at a time, and to send them to nearby schools.

Administrators also asked to turn Northaven School which currently serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade into an elementary school and to turn Woodstock Middle and High School into a middle school because of under-enrollment. Northaven Middle School students would be sent to Woodstock Middle School and Woodstock High School students would be sent to Trezevant High School.

The plan, if approved, would downsize staff and shutter several buildings for the financially strapped district, saving an estimated $2.8 million. Several dozen buildings scattered across Memphis either are more than half empty or shuttered because of closings in recent years and hundreds of families having moved out of economically depressed areas. The district has laid off several hundred teachers in response to a drop in tax revenue and losing several thousand students to new charter and municipal schools.

The proposed closings, which will be debated at community meetings during the next several weeks, are bound to stir frustrations. Parents and teachers have complained that recent closings have caused unnecessary chaos.

“You know we’re going to fight this,” said Toni Jackson, a South Side physical education teacher who has opposed previous state efforts to take over the school. “The gloves are coming off.”

The plan is partly in response to the looming fate of almost a third of its schools being lost to the ASD.

Several of the ASD-approved charter organizations have taken over schools one grade at a time, creating an awkward situation for district employees who operate in the same building but know their jobs likely will end soon. Hopson has said that services such as clerical work and professional development often are duplicated and that teacher morale and retention is low.

The ASD has argued that colocation gives charter schools time to perfect their models and traditional public schools an opportunity to share resources and best practices.

The district wants to move seventh- and eighth-graders at Airways Middle School to Sherwood Middle School, an iZone school; second- through fifth-grade students at Brookmeade Elementary to Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School, also an iZone school; and fourth- and fifth-graders at Spring Hill Elementary School to Keystone Elementary School.

Westwood Elementary would remain co-located with Freedom Prep Elementary next year because no nearby school can accommodate its third- through fifth-grade students.

The iZone expansion effort would be funded by money the district will receive from a newly announced funding settlement with the city, as well as philanthropic and federal money.

Board members said Tuesday that this is the first time they’ve seen a schools closing plan that involves an academic pitch to parents. Board Chairwoman Teresa  Jones noted that students who move schools rarely see academic gains.

“We live and die by data,” Jones said. “Are they getting better instruction? This is a contentious process and it brings about some emotion, but I think that if we’re asking parents to believe what we’re saying, consider this and trust us, then we have to be willing to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say.”