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Since 1948, East High School has served students in Memphis.

Since 1948, East High School has served students in Memphis.

Caroline Bauman

Hopson proposes big changes to three historic Memphis high schools

Days after the state proposed taking control of Memphis Hillcrest High School for charter conversion, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed merging the academically struggling school with Whitehaven High School.

In a presentation Tuesday evening to the Shelby County Board of Education, Hopson also proposed turning East High School into a Science Technology Engineering and Math magnet school.

Both plans would dramatically change the configuration and course offerings of the storied Memphis high schools in an attempt to boost test scores and reverse declining enrollments. They also could prove contentious among the schools’ strong alumni groups.

Hopson said he was surprised by a proposal unveiled last week by the state Achievement School District to take control of Hillcrest and turn it into a charter school — a plan he said he will attempt to block. He said he and his staff have been studying and planning for months a potential merger of Hillcrest and Whitehaven.

He wants freshmen at Whitehaven and Hillcrest to attend an academy at Hillcrest, with the rest of the school operating as a career and technical center. Students in grades 10-12 would attend Whitehaven.

“This is an opportunity to strengthen Whitehaven and to build upon such an outstanding record of high achievement,” said Hopson, a 1990 graduate of Whitehaven. “If you can take the DNA of Whitehaven and implement it around the corner and supplement a CTE program, you have the makings of something that could be really special.”

The ASD has proposed a Hillcrest charter conversion, possibly with California-based Green Dot Public Schools as the operator. A community meeting to discuss the plan is scheduled for this Saturday at noon at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options with the support of the ASD.

Under Hopson’s other proposal, East High School would serve students coming out of Maxine Smith Middle School, which was created last year because the former Fairview Middle School was at risk of state intervention due to chronically low test scores. East High School pulls students from neighborhoods of Binghampton and north Memphis and has seen a 40 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years. Test scores have suffered as well.

Board members gave Hopson the green light to engage the community over the next several months but didn’t indicate whether they are supportive of his proposals.

“This should be a progressive discussion that needs to happen with administrators, schools, communities, and we need to find out if there’s even a need for something like this,” said board member Shante Avant.

Shelby County Schools, created in a 2015 merger of the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, has lost thousands of students in recent years due to demographic shifts, the conversion of dozens of charter schools, and the creation of six suburban municipal school districts. With the enrollment decline, the consolidated district has lost funding, prompting the board to close 17 schools since 2013 and to reorganize others.

Ken Welch, an alumnus of East High School, said later he was open to a reorganization that could restore his alma mater to its glory days.

“I think any involved alumnus of East High has been worried about East’s academic performance for many years, and that the enrollment has dropped to less than 600 just adds to the concern,” said Welch, who graduated from the school in 1968. “Many years ago, East was not only one of the top academic schools in the city, but in the entire region. I think all the alumni would really love to see it restored to that level, not only to support our pride in the school but for the benefit of the students of East and of the community as a whole.”

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