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.”

Pivot

Hopson now wants to invest in struggling Memphis schools instead of just closing them

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

Declaring “we’ve learned a lot” in the last four years, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Tuesday said it’s time to make investments in Memphis’ lowest-performing schools after years of shuttering them.

He rolled out a new framework for determining how to do just that, starting with 11 schools — 10 of which are in the state’s bottom 10 percent — that soon will receive “treatment plans” to address academics, building needs and enrollment.

The plans will include components pulled from the Innovation Zone, the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Possibilities include additional instructional time, new faculty positions such as intervention support staff for high-need students, and beefed-up before- and after-school programs.

He declined to estimate a price tag for the proposed investments, but said they will be included in the district’s 2017-18 proposed budget, expected to be presented in the next month. The approach is scheduled to be discussed in more detail at Tuesday night’s school board work session.

“Our hope is that we’re able to invest in an unprecedented way and do it in a sustainable way,” Hopson told reporters during a morning press call.

The 11 schools on the “critical focus school list” are:

  • Alton Elementary
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hamilton Elementary
  • Hamilton Middle (iZone)
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Scenic Hills Elementary
  • Springdale Elementary
  • Trezevant High (iZone)
  • Westwood High (iZone)
  • Wooddale High.

Eight other schools already are receiving supports under Hopson’s recent plan to build, close and consolidate schools in the district.

The new framework arrives as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to bring a systematic and transparent approach to improving schools and shedding others in the bloated, mostly underperforming system. In the last year, leaders conducted a year-long facilities study and held community meetings across the county to figure out how best to right-size the district.

Hopson said his administration has been consumed with “trying to clear up a huge mess” left by the 2013 merger of city and county schools and the 2014 exit of six municipalities that created their own school systems. Four years in, the district has “stabilized,” he said.

“We’re in the most stable financial situation I can recall over the last six years,” Hopson added.

“We’re in a continuous improvement mode here, not just in academics but the way we do business. We’ll be putting schools up against this framework every single year,” he said.

Dunbar Elementary is a recent example of how the district is seeking to change its approach to schools on the bubble for closure. Dunbar was on the chopping block this year but, after community outcry last month, Hopson’s administration spared the Orange Mound school and opted instead to invest in it.

Hopson said he has spoken with each principal from the 11 schools that will receive new treatment plans in the next 60 days.

“We’ve got to spend time with schools to figure out what needs are,” he said, noting there are no uniform solutions.

Hopson emphasized that the new framework is not a list for closing schools, although the targeted schools could still close later if they don’t improve.

Shelby County Schools has closed 15 schools during Hopson’s tenure as superintendent and, just last spring, he suggested that the district would have to close up to 24 more in the next five years. That number has since decreased to 18.

Hopson said the framework should help the district sort out those decisions.

“As long as we’re seeing improvement, then closure is not going to be something we’re talking about,” he said. “We want to give schools time.”

He added that new school principals typically are given about three years to make changes.

That timeline aligns with the Tennessee Department of Education’s proposed school improvement guidelines developed in response to the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Under the proposal, the state is seeking to give districts more time to implement turnaround strategies before the state intervenes.

Below, you can read the district’s fact sheet about the new framework:

school closures

Hopson just backed away from closing one failing Memphis school. Here are three things to know.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a district-sponsored community meeting at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in 2015. Hawkins Mill is one of the schools on the district's new "critical focus school list.”

For more than a year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has beat a steady drum about the need to reduce the number of empty classroom seats in Memphis by closing schools and reconfiguring Tennessee’s largest district.

So many were taken by surprise on Tuesday night when Hopson announced that he had changed his mind about shuttering Dunbar Elementary, one of the first schools targeted in Hopson’s plan to close, build and consolidate schools.

School closures are nothing new in Memphis. But the newest round proposed last fall promised to be different. For the first time, Hopson and his team had used a comprehensive analysis of data to make their recommendations. Dunbar fit two of those criteria — low test scores and high building maintenance needs.

During the last week, however, a number of factors converged to change the fate for Dunbar, at least for the next year.

Here are three things to know now as Shelby County Schools moves forward with Hopson’s plan to right-size the district:

Hopson is showing a willingness to deviate from what the data says.

When considering which Memphis schools to close, three data points are factored in: low test scores, severe underenrollment, and high building maintenance costs.

Initially, Hopson said it was a “no brainer” to start by closing Dunbar and six other schools that fit some or all of those criteria.

But he took a second look after seeing a groundswell of community support around Dunbar from residents of Orange Mound, the historic African-American neighborhood that recently received a national heritage designation. So instead of closing the school based strictly on the data, Hopson used the school’s higher enrollment and the community support to justify new academic and capital investments.

“I have really heard you all loud and clear,” Hopson told Dunbar supporters before announcing he was tabling his recommendation. “And it’s not necessarily the words that I heard but it’s the actions behind the words that piqued my interest. You’ve got a committed community. And unlike other instances, … you don’t have (an enrollment) issue.”

Memphians have long complained that district leaders don’t listen to their concerns, while school leaders have often complained about a lack of parent and community involvement in many schools. Seeing Orange Mound’s outpouring of support for its last locally operated neighborhood school appeared to make the difference.

The district remains vigilant about retaining its students.

Dunbar is the only elementary school left in Orange Mound that’s operated by Shelby County Schools.

Keeping Dunbar open allows the local district to retain students who might have switched to two primary charter schools operated under the Achievement School District. The state-run campus at Hanley, managed by Aspire Public Schools, sits closer than the other Shelby County schools to which Dunbar students would have been reassigned.

“Some of the parents pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to put my kid on a bus. So my alternative may be to go to Aspire Hanley, which is around the corner,’” Hopson told reporters after the meeting. “That wasn’t an … alternative for me.”

Those concerns align with requests from school board members who have urged district administrators to track what happens to students when their schools are closed — whether they actually go to the new school they’re assigned to, or leave the district altogether.

Hopson still has a plan to guide the district. The next test will be moving ahead with the proposal to build and consolidate.

For now, Carnes Elementary will be the only school closed this spring following the school board’s vote on Tuesday night.

The other parts of Hopson’s plan will need funding approval before it comes to a school board vote. The superintendent has recommended replacing Goodlett and Alcy elementary schools and merging three others into the new buildings. That will require the school board to secure $49 million from the local funding body, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

The plan is in line with commissioners’ desire for the district to shorten the school system’s list of aging and costly school buildings.

This close-build-consolidate model is young in Memphis, with Westhaven Elementary School being the pioneer. But it has been a mostly popular solution thus far among residents and local officials.