School Closings

At final closing meeting, parents, teachers, and alumni ask board to keep Riverview Middle School open

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Riverview closings meeting

Riverview Middle School just went through a big change. As part of Shelby County Schools’ highly-touted Innovation Zone, administrators replaced its principal and entire staff to improve its test scores which ranked among the Tennessee’s lowest. But halfway through the school year, students, staff and community are now bracing for another possible change: Riverview is on the list of 13 schools the district is considering closing.

Monday night, at the last of nine community meetings about the closings scheduled by the district, Riverview community members and teachers echoed concerns that have arisen at each meeting: Closing the school will disrupt students and the community. But Riverview’s status as part of the district’s I-Zone adds an extra wrinkle. The school is already in the midst of a dramatic turnaround, and the district will lose federal funds supporting that turnaround if the school is closed.

The administration has proposed to the board to merge Riverview with Carver High School because of declining enrollment in recent years. The plan kept Carver High School off of the list of schools to close.

On Monday, after administrators presented the district’s reasons for to close the school, Riverview parents and teachers used an open comment period to voice their concerns. Speakers said that the school’s new staff has helped it improve dramatically so far this year. Some were concerned that sixth graders would have to attend schools with 12th graders. Others raised concerns about another vacant building in the neighborhood. Many expressed confidence in Rosalind Martin, the school’s new principal.

“Would you do your kids the same way?” said community member Dwight Williams. “The blood is on your hands. This ain’t no joke. These students don’t get along with other schools. They’re doing fine here.”

Before the meeting, Riverview community members distributed paperwork that emphasized some lowlights about Carver High School: The school earned the state’s lowest ranking, a one out of five, for academic achievement and academic growth last year.

Brenda Brooks, an alumna, described her concerns about the closing to the board. “There’s been enough upheaval for the students of this community,” she said. “How can you not know that this will negatively affect their learning?”

After community members spoke, board member Billy Orgel asked district officials to clarify the condition of the facility and to explain whether it could remain part of the I-Zone if it were merged with Carver.

Riverview is not being closed because of the condition of its facility (unlike Westhaven Elementary School), according to Denise Sharpe, a planner for the district. Both Carver and Riverview are in good shape.

The head of the district’s Innovation Zone, Sharon Griffen, said the improvements at the school were intended to last beyond the period of time funded by federal grants.

Memphis City Schools received a three-year award for $14.7 million in 2012 in federal School Improvement Grants targeting the I-Zone, which includes 13 schools. Just how much would be lost if Riverview closes before the grant period ends was not clear Monday night.

“The goal of the I-Zone is sustainability,” Griffen replied. “The dollars alone would not bring the changes we’ve seen. It’s the hard work…these kids have been successful. It’s not just the dollars, it’s the belief in planting the seeds of a better school.”

Griffen said that the school was already seeing positive results for students. She also informed board members and the community that moving Riverview means that the district would lose federal funds that are supporting current turnaround efforts. “If they move Riverview, they no longer qualify for the funds,” she said. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

Despite its current upward trajectory, Riverview is still ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Board member Billy Orgel said, “If I were a parent, I would be jumping around, doing everything I could…I would not have a child at this school because of performance. You as parents should demand more….We can’t continue to neglect children in any part of the community.”

Some parents protested Orgel’s comments. One woman rose to respond and was asked to address the board member individually after the meeting. Cries of “freedom of speech” bounced around the room.

“It’s not about freedom of speech, because we’ll stay here to talk to anyone,” said board member Jones.

As they did at Westhaven last week, board members spoke at the end of the meeting to reassure community members that they are listening to concerns. “My decision has not been made,” Jones said.

Jones also replied to complaints that the closings are motivated by money.

“Money is a factor in everything you do,” Jones said. “The state funding formula mandates how they give school systems money. We’re struggling to use the dollars we have to do the most good.”

Board member Shante Avant, whose district includes Riverview, said board members would take the school’s I-Zone status and recent improvements into account in their decision-making.

“There are many people who have come forward on behalf of Riverview Elementary, Riverview Middle, and Carver High School,” she said. “There are several things that have been discussed to ensure that we’re doing the best for this community. But the buildings need to be utilized. There’s such a small number of kids here. All of those things have to be part of our decision-making process.”

Reginald Porter Jr., the district’s chief of staff, said that the district does not have a certain target number of schools that need to be closed.

Porter said it is possible that the district will hold more community meetings about the closings.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”