shift

Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.

another setback

With no one willing to run it, Klondike will be first to close in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents pick up their students at Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary. The school is likely to close after the Achievement School District was unable to find a new operator.

No one within the Achievement School District has stepped up to take over a school that lost its charter management — not even the network directly run by the turnaround district.

This means that Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary will likely close this year. The announcement from ASD officials on Thursday sets the ASD up for its first-ever closure — the latest in a string of bad news that hints at deep troubles for the state-run district.

Gestalt Community Schools, a local charter operator, said in October that it would pull out of Klondike Elementary and Humes Preparatory Academy Middle schools because it was struggling to enroll enough students to sustain operations.

Two operators expressed initial interest in taking over at Humes and one appears likely to apply formally to run that school. But none are willing to run Klondike — including the district’s own operator, Achievement Schools, which already runs five schools in Frayser.

“This decision is based on what the Achievement Schools has determined as their inability to offer its full level of support and service to students with the financial implications of a lower student enrollment,” Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, told parents and community members in an email Thursday revealing Klondike’s likely fate.

The setback provides another example of the ongoing challenges the charter operators within the Achievement School District face taking over neighborhood schools. A second operator, KIPP Memphis, announced this week that would also pull out of the South Memphis school it runs in the district because of enrollment struggles.

The ASD by design is comprised exclusively of low-performing schools in high-poverty areas, often with a dwindling school-age population. The state mostly restricts enrollment in ASD schools to neighborhood zoning, much like the traditional districts they once belonged to. That’s different from most charter schools nationwide, where operators are able to enroll students from anywhere in a city.

The ASD has also ruled out the possibility of Shelby County Schools reabsorbing the school, which the ASD took over in 2014 after years of poor performance. Shelby County Schools told the Memphis Daily News in October that it would “explore every possibility” of serving the students of Humes and Klondike.

“At this time it’s premature to speculate about what will happen with Klondike,” SCS spokeswoman Natalia Powers said in a statement. “SCS, however, commits to working with the ASD and impacted families to ensure students have the appropriate support.”

Both Gestalt and KIPP, which became the first charter operators to back out of turning around schools under its charge, cited low enrollment as their primary reason for exiting.

Frayser Community Schools, the second operator to show interest in Gestalt’s former schools, plans to submit an application, but only for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle. The ASD was originally unsure whether Frayser had the academic track record to be eligible, but gave them the green light to apply after state achievement scores came out last week.

Frayser isn’t certified to operate an elementary school, White said. He added that while Frayser is not necessarily committed to applying to run Humes, either, they have expressed interest. The application will be due in early January.

That leaves Klondike Elementary without an operator, meaning it would close at the end of this school year.

“As developments currently stand, students from Klondike Elementary School will be reassigned to a neighboring, higher performing school that will be identified through the collaboration of the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools,” White said.

Frayser Community Schools currently operates one school, MLK College Preparatory High, located about five miles north of Klondike and Humes. The CEO of Frayser Community Schools Bobby White, no relation to Bobby White of the ASD, said his ties to the community makes his charter organization a natural choice to take over Humes.

“We care about the community, have a model to sustain the student population, and have a tremendous track record for leading middle schools and connecting to the community,” Frayser’s White told Chalkbeat.

Frayser’s White said that they have met with some of the families at Humes, and the feedback about what Gestalt has done in the school has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They want to keep the things Gestalt is currently doing,” White said. “They love the principal and asked if he would be able to stay. They had researched us and were excited that we came to visit.”

The ASD’s next steps will be holding public meetings:

  • 5 p.m. Jan. 9 at Klondike Preparatory Academy, 1250 Vollintine Ave;
  • 5 p.m. Jan. 11 at Humes Preparatory Academy, 659 N. Manassas St.

Reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with comment from SCS.

Inside peek

How Westhaven Elementary — which combined three schools in a new building — may be the new model for closing schools in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Rodney Rowan, a go-to principal with a track record of success, was tapped to shepherd the rebooted Westhaven Elementary School in Memphis.

The sign outside says Westhaven Elementary School, but those who enter are immediately reminded that Shelby County Schools’ newest school building is home to three communities.

Forming a giant “W” at the entrance are the names Westhaven, Fairley and Raineshaven — a symbol of unity sought this fall when the district consolidated three elementary schools into one.

It hasn’t been a seamless merger. Members of the Westhaven community initially protested the shuttering of their school, fearful that district leaders wouldn’t follow through with their promise to build a new one in its place. And students and faculty had to be relocated temporarily to Fairley and Raineshaven during construction.

The names Westhaven, Fairley and Raineshaven form a “W” on the school’s entrance mat.

But now that Westhaven’s glitzing new $14 million building is open — and Fairley and Raineshaven have been closed, with their students shifted to Westhaven — Principal Rodney Rowan is working to fuse three communities into one. The goal is to create a different pathway to academic bliss.

It’s a model that Memphis is watching closely as leaders look to shutter more under-enrolled schools in old buildings that are expensive to maintain. In the process, they want to place their students in improved learning environments where they can be more successful.

In November, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson proposed three similar building and consolidation projects. His plan would replace three schools, close five others, and consolidate the students. The model would give families the promise of being part of something new, unlike unpopular school closures in the past that have sent students to old rival schools.


Read more of our coverage on past Memphis school closures.


Hopson has hailed Westhaven as the emerging model for a district seeking to address challenges with academics, enrollment and aging buildings. As such, his administration turned to Rowan, a go-to principal with a track record of success, to shepherd the rebooted school.

Walking through his new stomping grounds, Rowan is quick to point out large bulletin boards in the hallway trumpeting students with good scores and perfect attendance. Those students will be rewarded with a popcorn party, just one of the school-wide celebrations that Westhaven holds each month to incentivize students — and to build community.

“We had a Thanksgiving program where students performed,” Rowan said. “We have a Motown Christmas this year. A Grandparents Day luncheon. Muffins for Moms. Doughnuts for Dads. Coffee dates with me, where parents are able to tell me what they like and what they want different. … To create culture, you’ve got to have activities that create ownership.”

As Shelby County Schools looks to build, close and consolidate more schools, Rowan has advice for those incoming principals. For instance, it would have been a mistake, he said, to discount the staff and cultures at Fairley and Raineshaven when launching a consolidated Westhaven. So he hired some familiar faces, which did a lot to build trust among parents and students.

“You can’t throw baby out with the bathwater,” Rowan said. “You have to take into consideration how things were done at previous schools.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a bulletin board celebrating students with best attendance.

Rowan came from Cherokee Elementary, where he was principal of a low-performing school that saw significant test score gains under his leadership. Like Cherokee, the new Westhaven is now part of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a school turnaround initiative that gives principals greater autonomy to hire and fire staff, pay teacher bonuses, overhaul curriculum, and extend the school day.

Of the three new school consolidations proposed by Hopson, only Alcy is recommended to shift to the iZone.

Either way, Rowan warns that this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. He routinely puts in 60- to 70-hour weeks.

“You’ve got to know you’re going to have no life the first year if the school’s going to run the way you want it,” Rowan said of his 800-student school. “And the people you hire must understand you work until work is done. Lots of our teachers come in on Saturdays and holidays, because they want to get the work done.”

Whether the build-close-consolidate plan could work in other communities is yet to be seen. However, the school board has given Hopson the first green light for more such projects and will cast their final vote early next year. In the meantime, board members are talking with their constituents and studying the details.

One lesson learned from from Westhaven: Closing and demolishing a school to build a new one in its place is disruptive, according to Shante Avant, a school board member representing Westhaven. Under the new proposal, the district would build new schools on other parts of the existing campuses so that schools don’t have to close during construction.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Rodney Rowan listens in to a science lesson.

Still, Avant cautions that a “pull out of the box” model won’t work everywhere.

“Every community is different, so the needs are different. But we learned a lot with Westhaven about how to build trust,” Avant said. “And there are some lessons that are replicable in any situation, like having a strong leader who will hire the staff needed. Mr. Rowan had a vision in mind when he came in.”

The vision is working so far for Tina Isaac, whose 7-year-old daughter came to Westhaven this year from Raineshaven.

“I can tell she’s doing better and it seems like the teachers just have a lot of support,” Isaac said. “We weren’t too sentimental leaving Raineshaven, and it helps we don’t have to travel further to go to this school.”