Shelby County Schools superintendent says closings should help district boost academics

The closure of ten Memphis schools should help the Shelby County Schools improve education for students who have been stuck in underperforming schools, the district’s superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a press release today.

The district’s board voted Tuesday to approve plans to close 10 schools in Memphis. Thirteen schools had initially been on the chopping block, but the district’s plans were reshaped by a series of community meetings.

Hopson has repeatedly framed the closings as a way for the district to consolidate resources in order to address low performance in the schools, most of which have seen enrollment drop precipitously in recent years. Research on the academic impact of school closures in other cities suggests that improving education will be a challenge.

From the district’s press release:

On February 25, 2014, the Shelby County Board of Education voted in support of 12 recommendations presented by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to close under-utilized, under-resourced and under-performing schools. The vote aligns with Superintendent Hopson’s commitment to ensuring children in every community have access to the best academic offerings to help them succeed as students, citizens and professionals in the 21st century.

“I firmly believe the decisions we’ve made as a district and Board are in the best interest of students,” Hopson stated. “We have an obligation to give our students the best opportunities to learn and grow, and the truth is we cannot accomplish that in schools that are under-utilized and under-resourced.”

“These decisions were not taken lightly. This was an extremely diligent process,” Hopson said. “We studied each individual situation carefully, and I’m most grateful for the feedback we got from our stakeholders.”

Input from the community was vital to the process and, in fact, led to changes to multiple recommendations: two schools were kept open (Alcy Elementary and Riverview Middle), one decision was delayed a year to allow more time to study alternatives (Northside High) and a resolution was approved to explore the construction of a new school in one community (Westhaven Elementary), which would improve learning for students at three separate schools.

“I recognize this was a tough and emotional process for parents and stakeholders who love their schools, and I’m grateful for their input,” Hopson said. “What it shows is that we have passionate and engaged families. What I’ve said to every community I met with is that our students will need the same type of passion, pride and support at their next school for this to be a success.”

The Superintendent says there is an exciting element to these decisions from an overall teaching and learning standpoint. He points out that welcoming schools have an opportunity to incorporate the best practices and successes of the prior schools, which, undoubtedly, will benefit all students in the school.

The principals and teaching staff at the welcoming schools are excited about 2014-15, as well. They’re working on plans to ensure continuity and a smooth transition for all students.

“A year from now, I want us to look back and be able to say we all did our part – Board Members, district leaders, teachers, families. If we are all active and engaged partners, and we embrace the opportunities we have, our students are going to benefit.”

Here are the district’s most recent plans. You can find more of Chalkbeat’s reporting on the district’s community engagement process and plans for the closings here.

Chalkbeat spoke with WKNO about the superintendent’s hopes for the closings earlier this week.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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