Judge’s ruling confirms new school district lines, but the real changes are just beginning

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

On Monday, federal judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. dismissed a lawsuit alleging that carving new school districts in the Memphis suburbs out of the merged Shelby County system would resegregate the county’s schools. The decision brings to a close a long legal battle over the creation of municipal districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.

But though the suit is settled, the reshuffling of families, staff, and funds among the new districts has just begun. The changes that ensue could have a long-term effect on residential patterns, economic development, and school enrollment, budget and quality in southwest Tennessee.

The proposed 2014-15 boundary lines of the new municipal districts and Shelby County Schools don’t match up with the legacy Shelby County and Memphis City lines; many students in unincorporated areas of the county who previously attended the suburban school district will now attend the district that includes Memphis. Only students who live in the suburban towns are guaranteed spots in the six new districts.

Research shows that school district boundary lines influence the distribution of housing prices and wealth in a metropolitan area. Families who are able to often relocate in order to attend high-rated school districts.

“When you have district boundary lines that set districts and municipalities into competition with each other, the urban districts tend to lose,” said Jennifer Jellison Holme, a professor of education policy at the University of Texas in Austin. “It’s hard to recruit middle class families to districts with high poverty.”

In Shelby County, though districts’ enrollment plans are in flux, parents affected by changing boundary lines are frustrated about having already moved in order to send their child to a certain school only to see their school and district assignment changed.

But the suburban advantage is not entirely clear-cut: The new municipal districts must establish their reputations for having good schools while starting from scratch, and potentially with less funds than they initially anticipated.

Some of the new municipal districts will still have significant populations of students who live in poverty. Legacy Shelby County Schools students was more than 38 percent economically disadvantaged, while legacy Memphis City Schools was more than 84 percent economically disadvantaged in 2012-13. As far as the racial demographics go, legacy Memphis City was more than 93 percent minority while legacy Shelby County was 49 percent minority.

Just who will attend the new districts and how that will change the landscape of education in Shelby County, which is also feeling the impact of a new state-run district and a growing charter school sector, remains to be seen.

“We have to let the dust settle,”said Kevin Woods, the chairman of the Shelby County School Board. “We have seven new districts in Shelby County, including the (state-run) ASD, so we are trying to create an environment where you have least amount of disruption possible and then see where kids are actually going to school.”

Research based on other states, including New Jersey, New York, and Florida, indicates that fragmented school districts can drive residential segregation by race and class as middle-class families in an area tend to relocate to more desirable school districts.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if housing prices skyrocketed in some of those more well-off suburbs,” said University of Texas professor Holme.

While each state’s districting practices and laws vary, Holme said that urban areas that are broken into many small districts are often particularly segregated by race and class. In the St. Louis, Mo., metropolitan area, for instance, there are dozens of districts that vary wildly in terms of academic performance and demographics, and many of the poorer districts have been classified as failing by the state.

Still, she said, having a larger system also does not guarantee equity.

Economic development also comes into play. In Baton Rouge, a group in the southeastern part of the city is hoping to carve out a new school system in order to attract employers and workers who, they say, want to send their children to public school, not private school, but are wary of the large urban system.

The Shelby County municipal districts’ policies for enrollment could influence how much the new boundaries drive shifts in housing or economic development. If students from outside the municipalities find it easy to attend those districts, there may be less incentive for them to move.

The new districts have all decided to have some sort of open enrollment policy, which means some students from unincorporated Shelby County or Memphis could attend their schools for free, space permitting. But those parents must provide transportation to go to school – and students who are not zoned to the new municipal districts have no guarantee that they will get a spot.

The discourse around open enrollment in Shelby County has occasionally been racially fraught.

“If you read letters to the editor and listen to some of the conversations, some of the resistance in Germantown, Bartlett and other places to inviting in county school students has had a racial undertone,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about Memphis City Schools. “Now we’re starting to get some smoking-gun evidence of racial motivation, but the lawsuit is done.”

Despite some municipal residents’ wariness about drawing in students from outside of their areas, “I think municipalities, if they are wise, and I think they are, would stay with their policies and continue to say, we’re not going to put barriers up,” said Shelby County board member David Reaves.

There is a financial incentive for municipalities to keep the gates open: While the municipalities passed half-cent sales taxes to fund the districts, recent reports from education consultant Southern Educational Strategies demonstrates that the districts may not enroll as many students as they initially anticipated and may thus struggle to fund their districts. The struggle for funds could also lead some municipalities to raise property taxes – though such a change would likely be politically unpopular.

Meanwhile, planning for next year is in full swing. Local board members said the court’s decision, while momentous, was no surprise. Shelby County chair Woods said, “we felt confident that Judge Mays would probably dismiss the lawsuit. But [the decision] lifts any uncertainty about the finality of what’s occurred – that we’re transitioning away from a merged system of 140,000.”

“I think everyone got what they wanted,” said board member Reaves. “The [former Memphis City] district wanted one funding system for the county, and they got it; the municipalities wanted their own districts, and they got it.”

But families, especially those in unincorporated Shelby County, are starting to feel the effects of the rapid changes, and many are distressed.

At a meeting at Kate Bond Middle School, district planner Denise Sharpe showed maps that outlined redistricting that skirt the municipal districts and the state-run district. The rezoning plan places some students in “satellite zones,” meaning they must travel long distances to their new school.

Many parents expressed concern about students traveling long distances and about the academic quality at many of the schools in Memphis.

Parent Kevin Marlowe asked the district if now wouldn’t be an opportune time to reconsider zoning patterns for the entire district to avoid such arrangements. “It looks like we’re fragmenting district even further,” Marlowe said.

Woods said that while some students will have long commutes, the district had sought to minimize the number of families disrupted. Meanwhile, for those forced to switch schools next year, he said, “we’re talking to the municipal districts, saying, ‘Do right by those families.’”

Several board members from the municipal districts have suggested coming to agreements in which they would educate those students zoned to Shelby County Schools who already attend municipal schools, but no agreements have been reached.

Woods also said parents’ dissatisfaction with Memphis schools meant the board needed to focus on improving those schools.

Where these parents choose to enroll their children, and how districts coordinate or compete for them, will eventually determine the new shape of public schools in Shelby County – and the communities that surround those schools.

“Everything is in flux, and it doesn’t all have to do with the suburbs leaving,” said Pohlmann. “It’s hard to predict what Shelby County Schools will look like in five, ten years.”

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.”