For south Memphis neighborhood, proposed school closings represent another blow

Nadia Holmes attended Orleans Elementary, Longview Middle and South Side High schools in southwest Memphis, as did her mother, grandmother, four children and a slew of black professionals.

Today, Longview and Orleans are boarded up, its signs rusted, its windows shattered. Administrators closed Longview in 2007 and Orleans in 2012 in response to budget cuts and dwindling enrollments. Neighboring Lincoln Elementary School now serves the neighborhood’s youngest students, and South Side has been turned into a middle school, though both are barely half full.

Last month, administrators with Shelby County Schools announced a plan to shutter those two schools too. Only a quarter of its students are meeting basic state reading and math expectations. If the district doesn’t close them, the state likely will take over the schools, they say.

This week, the district will hold two community meetings on Monday and Thursday to discuss the potential impact. The meetings likely will be contentious.  Since the superintendent’s Jan. 21 announcement, teachers, parents and community activists have held a series of news conferences and rallies to fight the closings.

“South Side has history,” said Holmes, who lives across the street from the school. “This has always been our neighborhood school. There are way too many smart people who have come out of this school to close it. ”

The land where South Side sits has been home to a neighborhood school since the early 1920s. The former South Side High School had strong community support and maintains an active alumni group. Last summer, alumni sponsored a picnic that attracted more than 1,000 people, including several local dignitaries.

South Side supporters are frustrated by the gradual gutting of their beloved neighborhood, now dotted with hundreds of foreclosed homes. Some homes have been burned to the ground by arsonists and others have been ransacked by trespassers. Crime has steadily increased and, last August, a speeding driver hit a student in front of Lincoln and then fled. Some residents blamed district layoffs of crossing guards.

Now they say that closing more schools – which have served as neighborhood community centers and gathering spots – will only lead to more trouble. They refute the district’s test scores, pointing to a swelling honor roll and solid report card grades.

“This is the only decent school left over here,” said Holmes, whose daughter is an eighth-grader at South Side. “I refuse to be in a position where they take everything away from us like that.”

Members of the Shelby County School Board say they haven’t made up their minds about the proposed closings and pledge to hear parents’ and teachers’ concerns.

The district – under fire for having the state’s highest concentration of underperforming schools – has closed dozens of schools in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods in recent years after losing thousands of students to charter schools and new municipal school districts. Some of the families simply moved to neighborhoods with more opportunities.

District administrators say it’s too costly to operate aging, half-empty schools built for more than 2,000 students. Several of the schools can’t afford basic extracurricular activities such as sports programs, and classroom environments aren’t always attractive to the most qualified teachers. Test scores inevitably suffer.

South Side Middle School test scores

If they don’t close South Side and Lincoln, administrators say the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) likely will take over the schools to operate directly or hand over to a charter operator, a publicly funded but independently run school. As a result, the district would lose more students, as well as the state and federal money they bring.

ASD administrators twice have tried to take over South Side but changed their minds both times – once to give the school another chance to improve scores and later because a charter organization pulled out of the takeover process.

Along with closing Lincoln and South Side this fall, the district is pulling hundreds of students out of three other schools that the ASD plans to partially operate. Shelby County Schools also plans to realign enrollment at two other schools to serve only middle school students, rather than both middle and high school students.

Unlike with previous school closings, this plan calls for transferring the majority of students affected to a school in the district’s “Innovation Zone,” a cluster of schools that have flexibility from state law designed to help them make changes that rapidly improve test scores. Several of those efforts have proven successful.

“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.”

Last week in South Memphis, as they waited for school to dismiss, several parents expressed confusion and anger over the proposed changes. If their neighborhood school closes, they asked, how will they get to the new school? Will the closing happen before the end of the school year? (Administrators have said that, if the schools are close, students will be allowed to finish the year at their current school and that transportation will be provided this fall to their new schools at A.B. Hill Elementary and Riverview Middle schools.)

Other parents flatly disagree with the state’s assessment of their schools’ academic performance. They praise their children’s teachers, noting that the educators call home when test scores drop or students don’t show up to class.

Nicole White said she transferred her son to South Side last school year from their neighborhood school in Orange Mound because of the good things she learned about its special education program.

“Before my child came here, he couldn’t read a lick,” White said while picking up her seventh-grade son, Tabb. “Now, he reads and writes. There aren’t that many good schools around here. If they close this one, we’ll have nothing left.”

Others fear that transferring South Side students to Riverview, its crosstown rival, will result in skirmishes on the busses and in classrooms.

Several parents at Lincoln Elementary expressed frustration for having to transfer schools again – an arduous and emotionally draining process in which friends and beloved teachers are lost in the shuffle.

“They’re taking so much out of our community,” said Shawn Partee, whose daughter recently joined the school’s majorette squad. “Instead of funding prisons and jails, why don’t they try to fund these schools?”

In an editorial published last week, South Side physical education teacher Toni Jackson said the proposed closing is just another effort by the state to tear apart Memphis communities.

“If the state wants to take us back, let’s go all the way back – to sit-ins, boycotts, protests, marches,” she wrote. “And if need be, in order to save our schools and save our children from the political and corporate power structure, we might have to shut the whole system down to remove the stench. It takes a village with every villager involved.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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