Data analysis

Analysis: Memphis students from closed schools don’t always go to better ones

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students start their walks home from A.B. Hill Elementary School on a September afternoon. The Memphis school received students from Lincoln Elementary after that school was closed in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

In Memphis, the assumption has been that closing low-performing schools will cause students to end up in better ones.

But that’s not necessarily the case, according to data on the 21 neighborhood schools closed in the city since 2012.

Students who came from about half of those schools have been re-zoned to schools that either were academically on par or actually performing worse, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

This contradicts the rhetoric questioned for years by residents of neighborhoods impacted by shuttered schools. And just last week, when school board members discussed the process for future closures, they cited among their biggest concerns the academic performance of schools receiving displaced students.

District leaders expect to close up to 24 schools over the next five years and will release a facilities study this fall to inform the discussion.

Academics needs to be the primary driver, they say, in deciding which schools to close going forward — but that requires an examination of academics at both the closing and receiving schools.

It was only last year when Shelby County Schools began to track the test scores of students leaving closed schools. But those results will be delayed due to a one-year void in data under the state’s failed TNReady test.

A Chalkbeat analysis of publicly available district data dating to 2012 found mixed results in comparing performance at schools that were closed and those where students were rezoned. The analysis was based on two measurements: standardized test scores and growth scores. The growth score, known as TVAAS, is based on a complex “value added” formula that uses state tests to rate the impact of individual teachers on their students’ learning on a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 being the lowest and a 5 the best.

The analysis shows that up to 2,600 Memphis students leaving 10 closed schools since 2012 were assigned to schools with similar, if not worse, test scores.

Take Orleans Elementary, which was closed in 2013. That year, half its students performed at or above grade level in math and a third performed similarly in reading. After Orleans closed, its 170 students were directed to Lincoln Elementary, where students scored 13 percentage points worse in math and 8 percentage points worse in reading than students did at Orleans. Test scores at Lincoln Elementary dipped the year after Orleans students started attending, and before long, Lincoln was on the district’s closure list. That school was officially shuttered last year.

Lincoln’s students then were rezoned for A.B. Hill Elementary, a school in the district’s Innovation Zone initiative for improving low-performing schools. The year before it closed, Lincoln earned a TVAAS score of 3. The same year, A.B. Hill scored a 1. However, A.B. Hill did have higher achievement scores than Lincoln. For example, more than 26 percent of A.B. Hill students scored proficient or advanced on math achievement tests during the 2014-15 school year, compared to more than 19 percent of Lincoln students.

It’s important to keep in mind that displaced students rezoned to another school don’t always end up going there. In fact, district officials believe only about half make that transition following the new zones. But the same concerns apply.

Miranda Moore, 11, attended Alton Elementary after Lincoln Elementary was shuttered and now attends Riverview School.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Miranda Moore, 11, attended Alton Elementary after Lincoln Elementary was shuttered and now attends Riverview School.

Miranda Moore, now a sixth-grader at Riverview K-8, attended Alton Elementary after Lincoln was shuttered because Alton was closer to home. In 2014-15, Lincoln’s last year of operation, Alton scored a 1 on TVAAS.

“I was sad to leave Lincoln,” Miranda said. “It was a fun school with lots of field trips. Teachers told us that it was closing because of low test scores. I felt like the teachers there were good. So, I didn’t get that.”

About 750 students from at least three closed schools were assigned to a school with the same growth score.

Take recently shuttered Carver High, which had a TVAAS of 1, the lowest score possible, in 2014-15. Hamilton High, which is supposed to absorb most of the Carver students and is part of the district’s iZone, also had a TVAAS score of 1 last year.

But test scores don’t necessarily measure the environment of a school.

“Because Carver was a smaller school, there was lots of time for one-on-one between teachers and the students,” said Kevin Woodard, a chemistry and physics teacher at Hamilton who taught at Carver last school year. “I don’t think it was an academically worse school. But, from a financial standpoint, I get why it might have been a fair decision to close.”

In a statement this week, leaders of Shelby County Schools said their evaluation of school performance is based primarily on achievement and growth based on test scores, but also include measures of quality such as staff retention and rates for graduation, dropouts, attendance and student attrition withdrawal. Several other measures of culture and climate also have been considered.

"While student achievement is the primary goal, we recognize students have needs beyond academic attainment, especially in high-poverty areas."Shelby County Schools

“The performance of the receiving school is not necessarily a reflection of the closure’s impact on students (or the achievement of the receiving school),” the statement said. “While student achievement is the primary goal, we recognize students have needs beyond academic attainment, especially in high-poverty areas. We want to help meet those needs and to ensure students are equipped with the skills to help them become contributing members of their community. Many of those skills are not measured on a test or in the classroom, but are equally as important.”

While school closings in Memphis generally coincide with budget talks, district leaders acknowledge that it’s not clear whether closing schools saves money in the long run. They increasingly are emphasizing the need to boost academic achievement by moving students out of low-performing, under-enrolled and costly buildings.

And yet, not all schools closed since 2012 were considered low-performing. South Side Middle, which closed in 2015, had a TVAAS score of 4 for its final year of operation.

Chalkbeat’s analysis showed 10 closings did propel about 2,190 students into higher-performing schools.

For example, about 10 percent of students at Vance Middle scored proficient/advanced on math and reading achievement tests in 2013-14, its final year. Vance students were added to Booker T. Washington High School, where more than 60 percent of its students scored proficient/advanced on achievement tests the same year.

Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.
PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

Though research on the academic effects of school closures in Memphis doesn’t exist, a 2009 study said students in Chicago were more successful if they transferred from closed schools to a significantly higher-performing school. And a 2012 study by the Journal of Urban Economics said negative effects of a school closing can be minimized if students transfer to a higher-performing school.

While community leaders are increasingly demanding that such decisions be rooted in academics, that’s typically not been the case, said Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis law professor who researches educational inequality in Memphis. The city’s school closures have mostly focused on saving money and responding to demographic changes, according to Kiel, who served on a consolidation planning committee several years ago that recommended shuttering some schools.

“We attempted to frame the school closings that we recommended as opportunities to provide more resources to more students rather than spreading resources in under-capacity schools, but that, of course, was not how the recommendations were received in the communities,” Kiel said. “The closing of a school is very traumatic to a community because it symbolizes a departure of a local institution — but the departure of that institution often only reflects a broader decline in an area around a school.”

There are numerous ways that school closures can have the potential to improve academics. Shuttering schools can be an opportunity to re-sort teachers to place top-rated ones in more schools, which can have the effect of increasing students’ access to better schools, said Cardell Orrin, Memphis director for Stand for Children, a school choice advocacy organization.

“With the teacher shortage nationwide, how do we have enough teachers in the building?” Orrin said. “We don’t have the number of highly effective school leaders for the number of schools we have. So consolidating the schools together where we can have an effective leader and operator … makes a lot of sense.”

School board member Chris Caldwell said that the “primary reason you should close a school is the quality of a building and the quality of education kids are getting in the buildings.” Even so, the district has to guard against the negative impact of flooding other schools with students that need additional resources after coming from closed low-performing schools.

“It makes it very hard to get traction and continue on the path and trajectory you were on in improving,” Caldwell said.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Analyzing the role academics play in Memphis school closures

The following table shows proficiency data for closed schools and their re-zoned schools during the last year of operation of the shuttered schools. Riverview Elementary and Shannon Elementary are not included because no publicly available proficiency data is available. TVAAS scores before the 2013-14 school year also were not publicly available at the time of publication.

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.