Hopson proposes big changes to three historic Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Since 1948, East High School has served students in Memphis.

Days after the state proposed taking control of Memphis Hillcrest High School for charter conversion, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed merging the academically struggling school with Whitehaven High School.

In a presentation Tuesday evening to the Shelby County Board of Education, Hopson also proposed turning East High School into a Science Technology Engineering and Math magnet school.

Both plans would dramatically change the configuration and course offerings of the storied Memphis high schools in an attempt to boost test scores and reverse declining enrollments. They also could prove contentious among the schools’ strong alumni groups.

Hopson said he was surprised by a proposal unveiled last week by the state Achievement School District to take control of Hillcrest and turn it into a charter school — a plan he said he will attempt to block. He said he and his staff have been studying and planning for months a potential merger of Hillcrest and Whitehaven.

He wants freshmen at Whitehaven and Hillcrest to attend an academy at Hillcrest, with the rest of the school operating as a career and technical center. Students in grades 10-12 would attend Whitehaven.

“This is an opportunity to strengthen Whitehaven and to build upon such an outstanding record of high achievement,” said Hopson, a 1990 graduate of Whitehaven. “If you can take the DNA of Whitehaven and implement it around the corner and supplement a CTE program, you have the makings of something that could be really special.”

The ASD has proposed a Hillcrest charter conversion, possibly with California-based Green Dot Public Schools as the operator. A community meeting to discuss the plan is scheduled for this Saturday at noon at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options with the support of the ASD.

Under Hopson’s other proposal, East High School would serve students coming out of Maxine Smith Middle School, which was created last year because the former Fairview Middle School was at risk of state intervention due to chronically low test scores. East High School pulls students from neighborhoods of Binghampton and north Memphis and has seen a 40 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years. Test scores have suffered as well.

Board members gave Hopson the green light to engage the community over the next several months but didn’t indicate whether they are supportive of his proposals.

“This should be a progressive discussion that needs to happen with administrators, schools, communities, and we need to find out if there’s even a need for something like this,” said board member Shante Avant.

Shelby County Schools, created in a 2015 merger of the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, has lost thousands of students in recent years due to demographic shifts, the conversion of dozens of charter schools, and the creation of six suburban municipal school districts. With the enrollment decline, the consolidated district has lost funding, prompting the board to close 17 schools since 2013 and to reorganize others.

Ken Welch, an alumnus of East High School, said later he was open to a reorganization that could restore his alma mater to its glory days.

“I think any involved alumnus of East High has been worried about East’s academic performance for many years, and that the enrollment has dropped to less than 600 just adds to the concern,” said Welch, who graduated from the school in 1968. “Many years ago, East was not only one of the top academic schools in the city, but in the entire region. I think all the alumni would really love to see it restored to that level, not only to support our pride in the school but for the benefit of the students of East and of the community as a whole.”

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

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.”