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.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

construction zone

New Memphis school buildings get green light on design funds

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that holds the purse strings for Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County leaders took the first step Monday toward rebuilding two Memphis elementary schools by approving $1.5 million for design work.

Early on, the Board of Commissioners signaled support for the new construction and consolidation proposed last fall by Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. The plan is designed to invest in existing schools while also reducing the district’s overall footprint and addressing expensive aging buildings.

The heftier price tag to construct the schools, which Hopson estimates at $43.2 million, will be considered by county leaders after the school board approves the district’s budget later this month.

The new Alcy and Goodlett elementary schools could open as early as fall 2018. Both schools would remain open as the new buildings are constructed on another part of the property.

The school board has not approved closing the schools meant to feed into the new buildings, but members have expressed support for the plan.

The new Alcy would also serve students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools as those buildings are demolished. The new Goodlett would include students from Knight Road Elementary, which would be demolished, along with some students from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools.