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Plans for selective school in Fairview building prompt questions about meeting needs of all students

Parents and students at a January informational meeting about a new STEAM school in the Fairview building.
Parents and students at a January informational meeting about a new STEAM school in the Fairview building.
J. Zubrzycki

Less than an hour after Shelby County Schools announced a new principal for its highly-anticipated new optional school in the Fairview Middle School building, board members raised concerns about plans to require all students to meet a certain academic threshold to attend the school, prompting a conversation about how the district balances efforts to cater to both its high-flying and neediest families.

Board members Teresa Jones, Shante Avant, and Billy Orgel suggested that an all-optional school might exclude some nearby students who would like to attend the school. “I’d like to see if there’s a way we could make a circle around the school, including some of Orange Mound and Cooper-Young,” said Orgel.

Board chair Kevin Woods and superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said that the all-optional school is part of the district’s effort to offer options for “‘high-flyers.’ “I have asked us to stop constantly looking at, ‘We have to keep schools out of bottom five percent because the ASD’s going to take them,'” said Woods.

On Wednesday night, alongside a series of redistricting proposals prompted by the creation of six new municipal school districts, Shelby County Schools announced plans to relocate students who attend the midtown school, which will house a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) program, to nearby Hamilton and Sherwood Middle Schools.

Fairview was not included in the list of 13 schools the district is considering closing before next year, but the school is, for all intents and purposes, closing; the STEAM school will have a new name (not yet determined), a new teaching staff and principal, and a new student body. It will be an “all-optional” school, which means students must apply and score above the 65th percentile on state tests in order to attend. Shelby County Schools announced last night that Alischa Brooks will be the new school’s first principal. Linda Sklar, the director of optional schools programs for the district, said the majority of students who applied for the school’s first year are rising sixth graders.

Fairview is currently ranked in the bottom five percent of schools in the state, which makes it eligible to be taken over by the ASD. In its new form, the school will not be eligible for takeover. One of the middle school’s feeder elementary schools, Hanley, is now part of the ASD; Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound, is planning to grow to include a middle school starting next year.

Though several nearby middle-class or gentrifying neighborhoods are zoned to Fairview, its current population is more than 96 percent low-income and African-American. The new STEAM school has been promoted as a new in-district option for those parents who are searching for a higher-performing middle school in the area; as such, it will likely admit fewer special needs students and fewer of the district’s lowest-performing and neediest students. Students who meet admissions requirements and live within a 2.5 mile radius of the school will receive an admissions preference, according to district planner Denise Sharpe.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said that the schools the students are slated to attend, Hamilton and Sherwood, are “on their way up” and that some neighborhood students who would not attend the optional school could also attend Aspire. Both Hamilton and Sherwood are part of the district’s Innovation Zone, another turnaround effort targeting schools ranked in the bottom five percent.

In January, hundreds of parents crowded into a room at Christian Brothers University hoping to learn about the new program. At that meeting, some of those parents were concerned that their children would only score high enough on one subject but not the other, or that their special needs children would not be able to enroll in the school.

At Wednesday’s meeting, board members Orgel, Jones, and Avant suggested that the district might want to keep the school open to neighborhood students.

“There are students in Cooper-Young who attend Peabody Elementary now. I think we might want to give them an opportunity to attend that school and not make it totally optional,” Orgel said. “I think you’re going to chase them out of our school system, and a lot of those parents have devoted time to being part of public education,” he said.

Hopson then said, “As it is, the Cooper-Young parents don’t send their students to Fairview.”

Advocacy from midtown parents played a role in the creation of the new STEAM school, which is part of a partnership with Christian Brothers University.

“We don’t want to exclude anyone,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said. “But the community is excited about having, potentially, a very high-performing school. Everyone in that radius gets a preference to attend.” Hopson reminded the board that plans for the school are relevant to him, as his daughter attends nearby Idylwild Elementary.

Meanwhile, Jones and Avant raised concerns about students who currently attend Fairview Middle School, who are majority-minority and low-income. “Have parents who aren’t going to be eligible been asked to submit whether they’d want to send children there?” Jones asked. “If that’s not the case, I’d ask that we take a slight detour and accommodate those parents.

The district held a series of community meetings about schools it is considering closing, but not at Fairview. The Fairview community was informed in November that students would be relocated and that teachers would need to reapply for jobs.

When asked if the district had room for the building to have both optional and non-optional students, Denise Sharpe, the district’s planner, said 200 of the seats in the building go to Middle College, while 300 will be held for the STEAM school. Fairview currently has about 280 students, she said, so the district does not have room for both those students and the STEAM program.

Hopson asked the board to let him know if the district needed to change plans. “When we started on this journey, this was the plan.”

“Fairview was a bottom five percent school. As we’re saying we’re trying to figure out how to address not only chronically underperforming schools, but also give high-flyers different opportunities,” Hopson said. “This is a way to do it. But we can hit pause if the board wants to.”

Jones said she hoped the district would poll current Fairview families. “I don’t know if I’m fighting a fight that doesn’t need to be fought. It’s because I don’t know from parents. We have a mechanism to poll them.”

Board chairman Kevin Woods echoed Hopson’s argument that the school represents the district trying to serve both high-flyers and struggling schools.

As far as the equity concerns go, he recalled former board member Tomeka Hart’s comment that she noticed that “not all schools are treated the same.” But, he said, “many of our high-performing schools have a high-performing track and another one on this side,” he said. “We’re saying this is a high-performing school if you live next door and you aren’t high performing, we have another good option for you.”

“There should be great schools throughout the district. We’ve got charters coming in…There shouldn’t be anybody else coming into communities saying, we’re the answer.” Woods said. “We need to be the answer.”

Board member David Pickler said creating the optional program lines up with national trends. “We are seeing…an awful lot of districts trying to establish public education as the school of choice.”

“I’d be interested to see a plan that gets us there,” Avant said. “We have to have a plan in order to build what you’re saying is being a district that brings students to us instead of runs us out of town…I don’t want to see us running ourselves out of business in next five years.”

After the meeting, spokeswoman Stefani Everson said, “We are moving forward with STEAM school plans. Ms. Jones was discussing her concerns but there has been no formal request to pause.”

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