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Shelby County closes three Memphis schools, moves students from three others

Students protest a plan to close some schools and transfer students from others within Shelby County Schools.
Students protest a plan to close some schools and transfer students from others within Shelby County Schools.

Responding to dismal academic results and the looming threat of state takeover, the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools voted Tuesday to close three low-performing schools and transfer hundreds of students out of three other schools being taken over by Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).

In all, more than 2,000 students will be impacted with the changes beginning next school year. The vast majority will be moved to schools within the district’s Innovation Zone, which receive extra federal dollars and state waivers to provide intense interventions designed to boost student test scores.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson recommended the changes, explaining that the district has “far too many better schools” able to absorb students from underperforming schools facing closure. “Given the state of where we are now, we have the ASD that’s indicated that it’s going to be very aggressive in looking at schools in south Memphis,” he said. “How can we put as many children in positions to learn and be successful as we possibly can?”

Students at Lincoln Elementary School will be moved to A.B. Hill Elementary, which will be brought into the iZone. Students at South Side Middle School, where only one-fourth of the students are meeting basic state expectations, will be moved to Riverview Middle, already an iZone school.

The board also approved the closure of Airways Middle School, which the ASD had planned to transition to a charter school this fall until Texas-based charter operator YES Prep pulled out of the deal suddenly last week. At a community forum Monday night, Shelby County leaders told families that Airways students will be moved instead to Sherwood Middle School, another iZone school.

About 15 people – including teachers, parents, students and neighborhood advocates – spoke Tuesday against the closings of Lincoln and South Side.

“As a parent, I am hurting,” said Patience Maxwell, whose son is a student at Lincoln Elementary.

Before the board began its business, Maxwell had watched with others in the audience as a school orchestra performed for the board and an elementary school robotics team was recognized for its achievements. Maxwell asked board members why such offerings had not available at schools like her son’s.

“What’s going on? This is organized chaos,” she said. “You’re moving our kids from school to school to school. … My kids are just as important as any other kid here. Give that program to Lincoln. … Give us those opportunities and see what happens.”

While the board unanimously approved Hopson’s recommendations, members raised concerns about the impact of closings and noted that test scores tend to sink when the district merges two schools.

“We can’t be constantly running from the ASD,” Kevin Woods said. “Every time we make this sort of decision, we need to be asking ‘Are the kids getting a better education?”

School closures have become an annual chore in Tennessee’s largest public school district in order to save money through consolidation and move students out of struggling schools and into better ones. Over the last three years, 16 schools have been shuttered, impacting 3,555 students.

But unlike previous closings due to low enrollment and big budget cuts, administrators say this year’s closures are due in part to the ASD’s gradual takeover of local schools in Memphis. More than a third of the district’s schools qualify for state intervention through the ASD, which can choose to directly operate the schools or turn them over to a charter operator. Once students transfer to the ASD, the district loses the state and federal tax dollars that follow that student, adding to the district’s budget woes.

ASD officials say state intervention has been necessary to turn around schools that have been neglected for too long.

In addition to the closures, the board approved transfers of some students from school buildings that the local district currently shares with ASD-authorized charter operators, who are operating one or more grades but not all grades. Citing wasted resources and low teacher morale, Hopson announced earlier this year that the local district no longer will participate in these arrangements, known as co-locations.

Students transferred out of Brookmeade Elementary will move to Lucie E. Campbell.

In a separate move based off low enrollment, Northaven School, which currently serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, will become an elementary school and its middle school students will be transferred to Woodstock Middle. Some students at Woodstock High School will be shifted to Trezevant and Bolton high schools.

In other actions, the board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, the county’s largest teachers union. The agreement guarantees an extra personal day for teachers with 18 years of service, a stable insurance rate, a defined work day and a set amount of hours teachers must devote to professional development and faculty meetings after school.

Shelby County Schools employs about 7,000 teachers and is one of the county’s largest employers.

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

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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