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Shelby County School officials to parents: Choose us or the state’s ASD

Shelby County School Board member Kevin Woods talks with a community member during a forum Monday night to discuss proposed school closures in a southwest Memphis neighborhood.
Shelby County School Board member Kevin Woods talks with a community member during a forum Monday night to discuss proposed school closures in a southwest Memphis neighborhood.
Daarel Burnette II

Parents and students angry about a plan to close two more Memphis schools heard a blunt response Monday night from leaders of Shelby County Schools: Be closed now and shift to a better-performing school – or get taken over by the state.

During the first of two community forums this week on the proposed closures, administrators and board members told parents that more than 75 percent of South Side Middle School students aren’t meeting basic state academic standards, making changes necessary.

The district is proposing closing South Side and sending its 200 students to Riverview Middle School, which is part of the district’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that have more flexibility to use innovative teaching methods to raise test scores. So far, schools in the iZone have outperformed schools in the Achievement School District (ASD), the state-managed district that oversees some of the state’s most challenged schools, most of which are in Memphis.

“It’s really a blessing for you to join our schools,” said Sharon P. Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent, during a presentation that included a video and charts extolling the program.

In response, community members audibly groaned, arguing that the proposed closures aren’t about the iZone or the ASD, but rather about shuttering yet another South Memphis school – the fifth in the last decade. They said the closures inevitably lead to more blight and crime in their neighborhoods.

“We lose our school; we lose our neighborhood,” said Gloria Walker, an aluma of South Side.

The closures are part of sweeping changes as the district attempts to retain students while the ASD continues to take over schools falling in the state’s bottom 5 percent in an effort to turn them around. The district also proposes pulling several hundred students from at least three schools that the ASD is gradually taking over next year. It is realigning two other schools to hold only middle school students, instead of both middle and high school students.

In prior years, administrators blamed closings on dwindling student populations and a strapped budget. This year, however, administrators have told parents that the closures will prevent a state takeover that is disruptive and does not guarantee student success.

Monday night’s forum was attended by about 100 people who included school alumni and neighborhood property owners. The meeting often broke into shouting matches between board members and attendees over how long speakers were allowed to talk.

For more than two hours, more than 15 people told board members they are happy with South Side. They described caring teachers, engaged students, and a safe environment for children in their neighborhood.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the state’s assessment of the school means that change must come, however. He said the district is trying to invest in South Memphis the way it should have long ago.

At one point, board member Mike Kernell said parents and teachers who are upset with the changes should call or write their state representatives.

The board is expected to vote on the proposed changes in March.

The next community forum is scheduled for Thursday at Lincoln Elementary School, which also is slated for closure.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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