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Parents, teachers sue Shelby County Schools over closing of Memphis school

Attorney Paul Robinson discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of members of Memphis' South Side community in the wake of the closing of a beloved neighborhood school.
Attorney Paul Robinson discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of members of Memphis' South Side community in the wake of the closing of a beloved neighborhood school.
Daarel Burnette II

Citing the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that led to integration of America’s public schools, a handful of Memphis parents and teachers are suing Shelby County Schools over a recent school closing, claiming that its students will receive an “inferior and unequal” education at the school to which they are being reassigned.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court, three teachers, family members of two students, and a community activist argue that test scores at South Side Middle School, which is in the process of being shuttered, outpaced those at Riverview Middle School last year. They say Riverview is a dilapidated building in a gang-ridden neighborhood that would place students’ safety at risk. They also cite absence of computer and Spanish classes at Riverview, which were offered at South Side.

“It becomes an issue when the students are moving backward, not forward,” said Paul Robinson, the group’s lawyer, during a news conference on Thursday. “Everything is worse than what they have now. When you downgrade a child’s education or place them in an inferior environment, you’re violating their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit, which was filed last week, appears to be the first of its kind in Memphis, where declining enrollment and budget cuts have forced the closure of 19 schools in Memphis since 2012, including South Side.

Robinson said lawyers across the nation have successfully argued that school closures violate students’ rights to a quality education. An alumnus of South Side, he said he is more concerned that students will be placed in a worse school setting than he is about South Side closing.

“An inferior education is inherently unequal and it violates the 14th Amendment,” Robinson said.

Contacted by Chalkbeat on Thursday about the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools declined to comment about ongoing litigation.

However, during a series of community meetings earlier this year, Shelby County administrators said they were moving students at South Side, where just one-fourth of students met the state’s reading expectations last year, to a school in the district’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that receive intense interventions aimed at academic turnarounds. The iZone is an expensive initiative that has proven mostly effective since its launch by the district in 2013.

District leaders have said the school closings are necessary because operating under-enrolled schools is not financially or academically efficient. However, a Chalkbeat analysis found that students’ test scores have sunk at schools that receive students from shuttered schools, and members of the Shelby County Board of Education have challenged administrators to be more purposeful in reassigning students in the future.

South Side and its future have been the subject of much recent discussion. Twice since 2013, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) explored intervening after the middle school landed on the list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools. But both times, the ASD withdrew amid protests from the community.

Meanwhile, the school’s student test scores have stagnated. Finally in January, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would shutter South Side at the close of the 2014-15 school year and move its students next school year to Riverview, its cross-town rival.

During a subsequent South Side community meeting, parents and students complained that prostitutes roam the streets and gang members regularly exchange gunfire near Riverview, less than two miles from SouthSide, which is nestled in an historic neighborhood rocked by economic shifts and a flood of home foreclosures.

Teachers questioned the accuracy of test score reports from the district that presented Riverview’s scores as better than South Side’s.

“We knew some of the things weren’t right,” said Tondalaya Jackson, the school’s physical education teacher who is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We didn’t know we had a legal basis for it.”

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