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Memphis school board renames district, approves closures and mergers

Students sitting around a school cafeteria table raise their hands when their principal asks a question

Alton Elementary will be closed next year as part of the sweeping Reimagining 901 facilities plan approved by the Shelby County school board on Tuesday. Students will instead attend A.B. Hill Elementary.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

The board of the newly-branded Memphis-Shelby County School District on Tuesday endorsed a sweeping facilities plan that includes closing two schools, merging another two schools, and relocating several schools and programs, among other changes.  

District officials said many of the changes are designed to better use schools with declining enrollment, address overcrowding at other schools, and move students out of buildings with millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.

The board agreed Tuesday night to close Alton and Shady Grove elementary schools after this school year. Alton students will instead attend A.B. Hill Elementary, and Shady Grove students will attend either Dexter K-8 School or White Station Elementary.

Dexter elementary and middle schools will merge to form Dexter K-8 School, and Mt. Pisgah Middle School will expand to include ninth grade.

In addition, three schools will relocate:  

  • Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a middle school, will move and share the East High School campus.
  • Northwest Prep Academy and the district’s Adolescent Parenting Program will move to the building formerly occupied by Airways Middle School.
  • Airways Achievement Academy, a K-8 school, will move to the building formerly occupied by Norris Elementary.

The changes are part of the district’s “Reimagining 901” initiative, which the board unanimously endorsed Tuesday.

The plan also calls for rezoning high school students in Memphis’ Riverwood neighborhood from Ridgeway High School to White Station High School, and for refocusing academic programming at Bolton High School on what the district calls “agristem” — agriculture, automotive, science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

Superintendent Joris Ray called the wide-ranging facilities plan the “first step to a new day” intended to revolutionize public education in Memphis. 

Ray’s initial “Reimagining 901” proposal, presented last year, included constructing five schools, expanding 13 existing schools, and closing 13 to 15 schools by 2031. Ray responded to critics who said the district is rushing the changes.

“Parents, I hear you. Community, I hear you. But we can’t wait on doing what’s right for children,” Ray said in an impassioned speech before the board’s vote. “I’m committed to doing everything in my power to ensure all of our students have a world-class education, because this work is personal to me, because I was once one of those kids.”

Minutes later, the board unanimously passed the facilities plan, with no discussion, among 30-some other action items. The vote covered the district’s initiative to change its name from Shelby County Schools to Memphis-Shelby County Schools. 

In a separate vote, the board approved renewing the charter contracts of several schools, including KIPP Memphis Academy Middle and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary, two schools administrators had recommended for closure due to low test scores.

Before the votes Tuesday, 21 people addressed the board, most expressing either excitement or dismay about Maxine Smith STEAM Academy’s move from Middle College High School to East High School.

Andy Rambo, the father of an eighth grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and of a junior at East High School who also attended Maxine Smith, commended the district for the move, and said it will make it much easier for parents like him.

Rambo also said he’s confident that combining two schools will lead to better educational opportunities for “all of Memphis’ babies,” including his 18-month-old son.

“It is a scary thing as a parent to trust a significant part of the social-emotional development of your child to someone,” Rambo said. “We cannot be more happy and confident in the decisions we’ve made.”

Conversely, Stephanie Ferreira, the mother of two East High School students, pleaded with the board to hold off on moving Maxine Smith to East and asked for “due diligence and investment” in working with parents and answering their questions.

“The position that we’re in as parents is one of confusion regarding a plan that many of us have just learned about over the past several weeks,” Ferreira said, adding many “walked away from the [district’s community] meetings with unanswered questions about a plan that was vague.”

Ray later defended the district’s plan as well-founded in extensive research, and also disagreed with complaints from some people that they weren’t well-informed about the proposed facilities plans.

“We don’t make haphazard decisions. We don’t just act without consulting the community, without asking the right questions, without garnering feedback,” Ray said. 

While board member Althea Greene acknowledged some parents and community members are concerned about the changes, she said she is happy with the plan and the board’s decision. 

“As we ‘Reimagine 901,’ we realize that things will have to change,” she said.

Asked after the meeting about the board’s lack of discussion before voting, Greene said members asked questions and discussed the proposal at previous committee meetings, and it was good they didn’t have to “waste time” at Tuesday’s business meeting.

Board Chair Michelle McKissack echoed Greene’s comments, saying the proposals approved Tuesday are not just about facilities, but also about the district “firing all of its cylinders” at its mission.

“It’s going to be difficult and not everyone is going to fully agree with it, but you have to look at the big picture and that’s what ‘Reimagining 901’ is all about,” she said. “It’s all about not just approving our school buildings, but what’s happening in the buildings.” 

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