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At final closing meeting, parents, teachers, and alumni ask board to keep Riverview Middle School open

Riverview closings meeting
Riverview closings meeting
J. Zubrzycki

Riverview Middle School just went through a big change. As part of Shelby County Schools’ highly-touted Innovation Zone, administrators replaced its principal and entire staff to improve its test scores which ranked among the Tennessee’s lowest. But halfway through the school year, students, staff and community are now bracing for another possible change: Riverview is on the list of 13 schools the district is considering closing.

Monday night, at the last of nine community meetings about the closings scheduled by the district, Riverview community members and teachers echoed concerns that have arisen at each meeting: Closing the school will disrupt students and the community. But Riverview’s status as part of the district’s I-Zone adds an extra wrinkle. The school is already in the midst of a dramatic turnaround, and the district will lose federal funds supporting that turnaround if the school is closed.

The administration has proposed to the board to merge Riverview with Carver High School because of declining enrollment in recent years. The plan kept Carver High School off of the list of schools to close.

On Monday, after administrators presented the district’s reasons for to close the school, Riverview parents and teachers used an open comment period to voice their concerns. Speakers said that the school’s new staff has helped it improve dramatically so far this year. Some were concerned that sixth graders would have to attend schools with 12th graders. Others raised concerns about another vacant building in the neighborhood. Many expressed confidence in Rosalind Martin, the school’s new principal.

“Would you do your kids the same way?” said community member Dwight Williams. “The blood is on your hands. This ain’t no joke. These students don’t get along with other schools. They’re doing fine here.”

Before the meeting, Riverview community members distributed paperwork that emphasized some lowlights about Carver High School: The school earned the state’s lowest ranking, a one out of five, for academic achievement and academic growth last year.

Brenda Brooks, an alumna, described her concerns about the closing to the board. “There’s been enough upheaval for the students of this community,” she said. “How can you not know that this will negatively affect their learning?”

After community members spoke, board member Billy Orgel asked district officials to clarify the condition of the facility and to explain whether it could remain part of the I-Zone if it were merged with Carver.

Riverview is not being closed because of the condition of its facility (unlike Westhaven Elementary School), according to Denise Sharpe, a planner for the district. Both Carver and Riverview are in good shape.

The head of the district’s Innovation Zone, Sharon Griffen, said the improvements at the school were intended to last beyond the period of time funded by federal grants.

Memphis City Schools received a three-year award for $14.7 million in 2012 in federal School Improvement Grants targeting the I-Zone, which includes 13 schools. Just how much would be lost if Riverview closes before the grant period ends was not clear Monday night.

“The goal of the I-Zone is sustainability,” Griffen replied. “The dollars alone would not bring the changes we’ve seen. It’s the hard work…these kids have been successful. It’s not just the dollars, it’s the belief in planting the seeds of a better school.”

Griffen said that the school was already seeing positive results for students. She also informed board members and the community that moving Riverview means that the district would lose federal funds that are supporting current turnaround efforts. “If they move Riverview, they no longer qualify for the funds,” she said. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

Despite its current upward trajectory, Riverview is still ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Board member Billy Orgel said, “If I were a parent, I would be jumping around, doing everything I could…I would not have a child at this school because of performance. You as parents should demand more….We can’t continue to neglect children in any part of the community.”

Some parents protested Orgel’s comments. One woman rose to respond and was asked to address the board member individually after the meeting. Cries of “freedom of speech” bounced around the room.

“It’s not about freedom of speech, because we’ll stay here to talk to anyone,” said board member Jones.

As they did at Westhaven last week, board members spoke at the end of the meeting to reassure community members that they are listening to concerns. “My decision has not been made,” Jones said.

Jones also replied to complaints that the closings are motivated by money.

“Money is a factor in everything you do,” Jones said. “The state funding formula mandates how they give school systems money. We’re struggling to use the dollars we have to do the most good.”

Board member Shante Avant, whose district includes Riverview, said board members would take the school’s I-Zone status and recent improvements into account in their decision-making.

“There are many people who have come forward on behalf of Riverview Elementary, Riverview Middle, and Carver High School,” she said. “There are several things that have been discussed to ensure that we’re doing the best for this community. But the buildings need to be utilized. There’s such a small number of kids here. All of those things have to be part of our decision-making process.”

Reginald Porter Jr., the district’s chief of staff, said that the district does not have a certain target number of schools that need to be closed.

Porter said it is possible that the district will hold more community meetings about the closings.

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