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Superintendent foreshadows changes to school closings plan as board members call for academic accountability

Westhaven Elementary School parents and students are hopeful that their school will remain open.
Westhaven Elementary School parents and students are hopeful that their school will remain open.
J. Zubrzycki

At a crowded school board meeting Wednesday night, a voice rang out from a group of children and adults clustered in the back of the room, dressed in red and white Westhaven Elementary School t-shirts: “Thanks Mr. Superintendent! We love you!”

It was a far cry from a community meeting earlier this month, where speaker after speaker denounced Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board members for neglecting Westhaven Elementary School. The district is considering closing Westhaven and 12 other Memphis schools before the 2014-15 school year.

The district’s final plan is likely to look different than the initial set of proposed school closings presented in December, if Hopson’s comments Wednesday were any indication. While Hopson didn’t make any final announcements about which schools will close, he gave some school communities – including Westhaven – hope that their schools might remain open.

“I’m surprised but happy,” said Bridget Bradley, the grandparent of a student at the school and president of Westhaven’s PTO. Bradley spoke at a protest against the closing last week.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Hopson outlined plans he received from school communities that ranged from rezoning students to building entirely new buildings and gave his reaction to each. Plans from Westhaven Elementary School and Alcy Elementary School received the most positive attention from the superintendent and from board members.

The Shelby County board will vote on Hopson’s final proposal next Tuesday. Hopson told Chalkbeat that developing that proposal will likely come “down to the wire.”

Hopson’s presentation came after a series of community meetings at nine of the 13 Memphis schools currently being considered for closure. (Shelby County Schools will definitely stop operating schools in four of the buildings, which will be run by charter schools and the Achievement School District.) The district is considering closing the nine schools due to a combination of factors, including low academic performance, deteriorating buildings, and declining enrollment.

Hopson said he heard concerns from communities about blight and transportation troubles that might result from the closings. “There was a lot of emotion,” he said. “One thing is crystal clear – people love their schools.”

Alcy Elementary School’s plan to improve literacy was singled out for praise. “There’s a strong support system, including donors and corporations,” Hopson said. “I’m impressed by (the) plan they set forth relating to literacy.”

Board members David Reaves, Billy Orgel, Teresa Jones, and Shante Avant also spoke in favor of keeping Alcy open.

Of Westhaven, Hopson said, “after studying the issue, I do have some concerns about what we proposed.” Hopson said that the buildings Westhaven students were slated to attend due to their school’s deteriorating condition also had millions of dollars in necessary building improvements. Both schools – Fairley and Raineshaven – also have lower academic ratings than Westhaven.

“Westhaven’s proposal is to tear down Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven, combine all three schools and build a new school in that area,” Hopson said. “It’s a good idea.” Community members cheered. Hopson cautioned that building a new structure would require the approval of the county commission, and board members suggested that not be an immediate solution. But board members Avant, Caldwell, Jones and chairman Kevin Woods also spoke in favor of keeping Westhaven open.

The district is waiting to learn whether it can reconfigure or close Riverview Middle School and still retain money from a federal School Improvement Grant, Hopson said. The superintendent said he hopes that the district can merge Riverview Elementary School and Riverview Middle school into a K-8 school, rather than merging the middle school with Carver High School and closing the elementary school, as had initially been planned.

Plans for Northside High School, Graves Elementary School, and Gordon Elementary School, which focused on rezoning students and included closing other schools, were described as less feasible.

At Northside, “data suggests that students wouldn’t attend even if zoned there,” Hopson said. Many students zoned to the school currently transfer out. Still, Hopson said, Northside could potentially host new alternative or vocational programs: “If we do see a viable plan that would allow it to stay open, we could present (that) to the board,” Hopson said.
Westhaven community members were protesting their school’s closing right until the board meeting started.Board members and the superintendent acknowledged that many of the schools have borne the brunt of past board decisions. “I feel really bad about what happened in that community,” said board member David Reaves of the area around Northside, which lost many students due to earlier zoning changes. Jones highlighted the fact that the area is near city redevelopment projects and could see revitalization in coming years. Board member Avant reminded other board members that Westhaven had asked for building improvements years ago but never received them.

Board members asked Hopson how the district planned to improve and monitor academics in the schools. “For me, my decision is based not so much on what we’re going to do and what we’re taking away – it’s will these children get a better environment for student achievement,” Jones said. “We’ve closed schools before. What have those situations yielded in terms of better courses or offerings of extracurricular activities?”

Research suggests that many districts that have closed schools have struggled to improve education opportunities for affected students.

Hopson said that receiving schools would have the opportunity to apply for a blended learning pilot.

“I will wait to hear final proposals,” said board member Teresa Jones. “At this time, I’m not supporting many of the current ones.”

“The academic plan should have been proposed at the beginning,” Avant said. “If we’re thinking about the magnitude of what it’ll cause in a community, we should have been talking, what is the academic plan for achievement.”

“It’s incumbent on us to have a three-to-five year plan and give the neighborhood realistic expectations so they can monitor and we can monitor how we’re doing,” said board member Chris Caldwell.

Board members told district officials that they should ensure that the plans they’re making won’t land the district in the position of having to close more schools soon. Reaves asked to see an operations plan suggesting that merging three schools instead of closing Westhaven would be efficient in the long run, given declining enrollment.

Board members alternately commended and criticized the closings process. Jones said she would not vote on those schools whose community meetings she was not able to attend because they conflicted with other meetings. Avant said she was “hopeful the community feels that the board and administration has given them an opportunity to share how they’ll be affected.”

Hopson said he acknowledged that these are tough decisions. “I hear everyone. My kid is in these schools. I grew up in these communities,” he said. “But we can’t have three failing schools all within walking distance of each other and all of them underutilized. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Hopson said he thought the district’s struggles to “right-size” make it a “canary in the coal mine” for the city of Memphis, which has also seen its population patterns change. “We used to have 3,700 people per square mile; now it’s 1,700. What this board is having to undertake, the city of Memphis has to undertake for its long-term stability.”
Hopson reiterated that the closings are not driven by savings. “This isn’t about budget. The savings may be $2-3 million,” he said. “That’s not enough for the heartache…But we have to do things to make sure we’re able to sustain ourselves as a school district.”

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