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Concerns about safety, community at school closures meeting

People hold aloft signs at school closings meeting.
People hold aloft signs at a 2014 meeting to discuss proposed school closings in Memphis.
J. Zubrzycki

Children, parents, teachers, alumni, and community members told Shelby County administrators and board members that their decision to shut down 13 schools in Memphis would have dramatic economic and personal consequences at an intense meeting Thursday evening.

5th grader Daniel Peoples tells the Shelby County school board not to close Bolton Elementary. Peoples is his class president.
5th grader Daniel Peoples tells the Shelby County school board not to close Bolton Elementary. Peoples is his class president.
J. Zubrzycki

The schools have served as anchors of their communities and have produced notable alumni and supported students for decades, said some. Others charged that the district set the schools up to fail and that charter schools would soon spring up in place of closed schools.

But administrators have long contended they can’t afford to continue to operate nearly-empty and failing schools amid dramatic austerity cuts, and that students would be better served in other schools.

This would be the largest group of schools to close at once in the city’s recent history. Most of the schools are clustered in the southern and northern areas of the district, in predominantly low-income black communities.

The school board and administration scheduled Thursday’s meeting to get feedback from community members on their plans.

At the beginning of the meeting at the district’s headquarters, schools superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II showed charts demonstrating the academic performance and building quality of the schools slated to close.

“I assume it’s going to hurt you like it hurts me,” Hopson said. “We have failed these schools for a long time…Real-talk: We have 68 failing schools in Memphis.”

Northside High PTA president Evelyn Taylor and vice president
Northside High PTA president Evelyn Taylor.
J. Zubrzycki

Hopson argued that students from the shuttered schools will be transferred to schools that will receive extra money for special academic programs and the unique ability for their principals to hand-pick their teachers.

Across the auditorium, the Northside High School’s alumni association, dressed in orange, held signs that read, “Bring back vocational education” and “Don’t Kill Our Community.” A group supporting Alcy Elementary School wore matching shirts: “Follow me to save Alcy Elementary School.” A Westhaven community member led a chant: “Save our schools! Save our schools!”

More than 40 community members out of a crowd of over 200 spoke to the board on Thursday.

The consequences of the school closures that were described were often personal. A woman worried how she would be able to transport her grandchild to school; the mother of a preschooler with special needs expressed concern about moving to a school with unfamiliar faces. One speaker, high school senior Sie Bradley, said hearing that Northside was being considered for closure several times over the past few years discouraged some of his friends from attending school at all.

Northside alumni and community members said they watched as programs were removed from their school and zoning changes drained the hallways of students over the last decade. Fewer than 300 students now attend a school that had more than 1,000 students in 2007.

“If they take away the vocational program, if they change the zones – why wouldn’t students go elsewhere?” said 87-year-old Evelyn Taylor, the president of Northside’s PTA. Taylor and a few dozen protesters stood along Summer Ave. with signs protesting the closings before the meeting.

Westhaven, which is on the list due to the condition of its building rather than due to its academic performance, drew some of the strongest defense. PTA member Bridget Bailey said, “If you say it’s unsafe, make it safe…you renovated Germantown and White Station.”

Speaker Claudette Boyd also decried disinvestment in the schools. “We did not elect you to close our schools,” she said.

Hopson said that he wanted to hear solutions, too, and many speakers responded. One speaker suggested that Northside be converted to a 6th through 12th-grade school and merged with another nearby school; another suggested that a school on the closings list become part of the district’s “Innovation Zone,” which is focused on improving low-performing schools. Others suggested changing busing patterns so students who live nearby schools slated to close would attend those schools rather than being bused farther away.

Follow us to help save Alcy Elementary.
Follow us to help save Alcy Elementary.
J. Zubrzycki

“Alcy has exhibited positive growth in academics every year since 2011…and the schools you’re going to bus students to are D and F schools, too,” said state representative Raumesh Akbari. “Alcy is an anchor in the community…We have a vision for Alcy that will take it to the next level.”

Hopson said the district would take into account community feedback. He cited Carver High School, where community advocates pushed to keep the school open, as an example of the board listening to community feedback.

District officials announced the following meetings regarding the closings, with more details to come:

  • Jan. 27 Alcy
  • Jan. 30 Riverview Elem. & Gordon
  • Feb. 3 Graves & Northside
  • Feb. 14 Westhaven
  • Feb. 6 Lanier
  • Feb. 10 Riverview Middle

The schools to close are:

  • Alcy Elementary School
  • Riverview Elementary School
  • Graves Elementary School
  • Westhaven Elementary School
  • Lanier Middle School
  • Corry Middle School
  • Riverview Middle School
  • Gordon Elementary School
  • Klondike Elementary School
  • Shannon Elementary School
  • Vance Middle School
  • Cypress Middle School
  • Northside High School
  • Community members watch presentations
    Community members watch presentations against closings.
    J. Zubrzycki

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