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Nine thoughts on school closings from the chief of staff at Shelby County Schools

Reginald Porter Jr. is the latest leader to depart from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's cabinet.
Reginald Porter Jr. is the latest leader to depart from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's cabinet.
Kyle Kurlick

The Shelby County school district is planning to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis next year. The district is holding hearings at each of the affected schools over the next few weeks.

After a public hearing at Alcy Elementary School, Reginald Porter, Jr., the district’s chief of staff and a former school board member, talked about what’s coming up next for school closings, about how the district’s responding to a growing charter sector, and about how the district is trying to incorporate community feedback in its plans.

1. These closings are different than the last round:

The closures five years back were strictly schools that were grossly underutilized. The ones over the last 2-3 years are the ones that were recommended by the transition planning commission (which made plans for the merging of the Shelby County district and the Memphis City district). We looked at a list of schools to determine which are underperforming and underutilized – operating at 65% of capacity or below – and determined that for some, with a shrinking economy and shrinking budget, closing or merging would give them a better shot.

According to a district spokeswoman, legacy Memphis City Schools had closed 13 schools since 2009.

2. The district has learned from previous rounds of closings, but is still figuring out some components:

One thing we’ve learned is, financial savings is not the the reason to close schools. We look at underutilization and actual academic process of students – those are the first two things.

One of the things we’re still learning, how do you staff the now-merged school? Do you take all high-performers (high-performing teachers) and move low-performers out? Or do you try to keep more teachers who were in the school for stability? We’re still trying to figure that out. We want to make sure kids are taken care of. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet or magic formula.

All the schools are different, each have unique issues. We went to close some schools last years, where, if we merged those, there would’ve been gang problems. So when they merged Hamilton and Southside, for instance, one of the things they had to do was put in a bunch of security. Every school is different.

3. The geography of school closings hit minority and less-affluent communities hard, but that reflects population trends.

I tell them [community members], we can’t change the population growth in this area. The population doesn’t warrant keeping the same amount of schools in the area. The boom is now in the east, where the suburbs are.

The district released impact reports, which include projected birth rates for the affected schools. The reports are available here.

4. There are some common misperceptions about this round of school closings.

When we come out and talk to the community, they think that, it’s a wrap, the decision’s been made. No, it’s not. That’s different than in the past…In the past I’d say, even when I was on the board, oftentimes it was a done deal. But the way we’re working this right now, it’s not a done deal.

It’s actually up to the board. But if some of the communities have viable plans, our recommendation might be not to close. But we need to have that confirmed community support and ideas that make the community a viable place. We have to make sure kids are taken care of.

5. There have been decisions in the past to remove programs or rezone students in such a way that the schools now don’t have enough students. But Porter says the district’s working with what it has now.

All that stuff is 20-30 years in the making. You need to argue with people who were elected then – arguing now won’t make a difference. What we’re doing now is making things right with what we have.

6. Charter schools may well come into new school buildings

It’s not preferred. But the reason we have a lot of ASD (Achievement School District) takeovers and charters using our facilities – if we did a better job of educating our kids, the schools would fill up, kids would come back to the neighborhood. The charter wouldn’t take over because we’re doing well. We wouldn’t have the ASD take over if we weren’t in the bottom 5 percent.

I wouldn’t say we view it as competition. But they’re here. The position we have is, we can’t stop that solicitation (charter schools recruiting students). We have to do everything we can to step our game up to be (the) best option possible. If we can’t do that, then shame on us.

We’re coming up with a marketing plan to make Shelby County stick out. We have leaders who really care about the community.

7. Porter was concerned about the fate of buildings as a board member, and is now trying to figure out how to “fix the things we were screaming about.”

When I was a board member, figuring out what to do with the buildings – that’s one of the things I screamed about. When I got hired, they said you’ve got to help figure out the stuff you’re screaming about.

We can’t negotiate any plans for a building until it’s officially planned to be closed. We know we have charters and the ASD, we’re maybe interested in that. We have to work with the city and the county to use these buildings effectively.

8. Some school communities have come up with proposals on how to save their schools.

At Alcy, there’s a plan to maybe use this building for adult education in the area. Right now, we only have one school in the area, and a lot of adults don’t have transportation. A lot of the adults around here have a 9th grade education If we educate adults – – – adults will find more credence in what we’re trying to do and that’ll ultimately spill out to the kids.

9. The district is trying to listen.

Our mission is not to close schools. If we can find a community that comes in, and there are programs proposed – we can think about it. We did that with Carver.

I don’t think the community’s been as engaged or aware of how the schools were doing before. But now, because of the ASD and closings, it’s bubbling up. They’re aware.

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