Proposed closures of nine Memphis schools draw protests

Eighth-grader Jociana Gilkey says the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering is like “my family” — and she doesn’t like that Shelby County Schools is considering breaking up her family.

“The moment I heard that I might lose my school, I got so upset,” said Jociana, who likes the small class sizes and supportive faculty and environment at the charter school, where her favorite subjects are math and English.

“Our teachers are not slackers. They help me with everything, every step of the way,” said Jociana, 14, whose younger sister also attends the academy.

Jociana spoke up Thursday night at a public hearing to protest the proposed closures of nine schools, including hers. About 300 parents, students and teachers filled the auditorium, where four of the district’s nine school board members were in attendance.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is recommending the closures to help close a projected $86 million budget gap next school year. Six schools on the chopping block are charters authorized by the district, and all nine schools are either under-enrolled or low-performing academically.

The recommendation to shutter more schools came on Tuesday after floating the idea as a trial balloon last week to school board members. Hopson said the closures would save between $6 million and $8 million and would prevent cuts that his administration proposed last month to two popular programs with built-in constituencies: CLUE, the district’s program for gifted students, and the Innovation Zone, its school turnaround program, as well as the jobs of 15 guidance counselors. As expected, supporters of those programs, particularly CLUE, turned out in force at budget meetings to challenge district leaders for cutting a program that works.

“WIth an $86 million gap to fill, we are forced to consider everything, as difficult as it may be,” school board chairwoman Teresa Jones told the crowd Thursday night.

In addition to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, the proposed charter closures include KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School, KIPP Collegiate High School, Omni Prep Academy-North Point lower and middle schools, and Southern Avenue Middle School.

The three district-operated schools recommended for closure are Northside and Carver high schools and Messick Adult Center. A 10th school, Dunbar Elementary, was taken off the list because the district can’t guarantee students wouldn’t have to change schools again after next year, Hopson said.

The school board already has approved closing two other charter schools at the close of this school year.

"If you take away their school, then what are they going to do?"

Shelfina Wilkins, parent

School closures have become an annual exercise in Shelby County Schools, which has struggled with shrinking enrollment and declining funding due mainly to the growth of the state-run Achievement School District and the creation in 2014 of six school systems by suburban municipalities. The district now has about 110,000 students, down from 150,000 in 2013 when the county and city systems merged. Leaders expect another enrollment decline next school year of about 1 to 2 percent, as the district loses another four low-performing schools to the state turnaround district.

Those statistics don’t mean a lot to Shelfina Wilkins, who showed up Thursday night to fight for KIPP Collegiate High School, where her two sons attend.

“Me as a mom, I’m frightened,” said Wilkins. “It doesn’t make any sense to close a school that’s doing so much for their students.”

Wilkins said her ninth-grade son, who was considered special needs by Shelby County Schools, is receiving individualized care at KIPP. Her eleventh-grader has reached a healthier weight because of participating in a KIPP dance program.

“If you take away their school, then what are they going to do?” she asked, fighting back tears. “Where else could they possibly go that will take care of them this much?”