School Closings

Nine thoughts on school closings from the chief of staff at Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Reginald Porter Jr. is the latest leader to depart from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's cabinet.

The Shelby County school district is planning to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis next year. The district is holding hearings at each of the affected schools over the next few weeks.

After a public hearing at Alcy Elementary School, Reginald Porter, Jr., the district’s chief of staff and a former school board member, talked about what’s coming up next for school closings, about how the district’s responding to a growing charter sector, and about how the district is trying to incorporate community feedback in its plans.

1. These closings are different than the last round:

The closures five years back were strictly schools that were grossly underutilized. The ones over the last 2-3 years are the ones that were recommended by the transition planning commission (which made plans for the merging of the Shelby County district and the Memphis City district). We looked at a list of schools to determine which are underperforming and underutilized – operating at 65% of capacity or below – and determined that for some, with a shrinking economy and shrinking budget, closing or merging would give them a better shot.

According to a district spokeswoman, legacy Memphis City Schools had closed 13 schools since 2009.

2. The district has learned from previous rounds of closings, but is still figuring out some components: 

One thing we’ve learned is, financial savings is not the the reason to close schools. We look at underutilization and actual academic process of students – those are the first two things.

One of the things we’re still learning, how do you staff the now-merged school? Do you take all high-performers (high-performing teachers) and move low-performers out? Or do you try to keep more teachers who were in the school for stability? We’re still trying to figure that out. We want to make sure kids are taken care of. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet or magic formula.

All the schools are different, each have unique issues. We went to close some schools last years, where, if we merged those, there would’ve been gang problems. So when they merged Hamilton and Southside, for instance, one of the things they had to do was put in a bunch of security. Every school is different.

3. The geography of school closings hit minority and less-affluent communities hard, but that reflects population trends. 

I tell them [community members], we can’t change the population growth in this area. The population doesn’t warrant keeping the same amount of schools in the area. The boom is now in the east, where the suburbs are.

The district released impact reports, which include projected birth rates for the affected schools. The reports are available here.

4. There are some common misperceptions about this round of school closings. 

When we come out and talk to the community, they think that, it’s a wrap, the decision’s been made. No, it’s not. That’s different than in the past…In the past I’d say, even when I was on the board, oftentimes it was a done deal. But the way we’re working this right now, it’s not a done deal.

It’s actually up to the board. But if some of the communities have viable plans, our recommendation might be not to close. But we need to have that confirmed community support and ideas that make the community a viable place. We have to make sure kids are taken care of.

5. There have been decisions in the past to remove programs or rezone students in such a way that the schools now don’t have enough students. But Porter says the district’s working with what it has now. 

All that stuff is 20-30 years in the making. You need to argue with people who were elected then – arguing now won’t make a difference. What we’re doing now is making things right with what we have.

6. Charter schools may well come into new school buildings

It’s not preferred. But the reason we have a lot of ASD (Achievement School District) takeovers and charters using our facilities –  if we did a better job of educating our kids, the schools would fill up, kids would come back to the neighborhood. The charter wouldn’t take over because we’re doing well. We wouldn’t have the ASD take over if we weren’t in the bottom 5 percent.

I wouldn’t say we view it as competition. But they’re here. The position we have is, we can’t stop that solicitation (charter schools recruiting students). We have to do everything we can to step our game up to be (the) best option possible. If we can’t do that, then shame on us.

We’re coming up with a marketing plan to make Shelby County stick out. We have leaders who really care about the community.

7. Porter was concerned about the fate of buildings as a board member, and is now trying to figure out how to “fix the things we were screaming about.”

When I was a board member, figuring out what to do with the buildings – that’s one of the things I screamed about. When I got hired, they said you’ve got to help figure out the stuff you’re screaming about.

We can’t negotiate any plans for a building until it’s officially planned to be closed. We know we have charters and the ASD, we’re maybe interested in that. We have to work with the city and the county to use these buildings effectively.

8. Some school communities have come up with proposals on how to save their schools. 

At Alcy, there’s a plan to maybe use this building for adult education in the area. Right now, we only have one school in the area, and a lot of adults don’t have transportation. A lot of the adults around here have a 9th grade education If we educate adults – – – adults will find more credence in what we’re trying to do and that’ll ultimately spill out to the kids.

9. The district is trying to listen.

Our mission is not to close schools. If we can find a community that comes in, and there are programs proposed – we can think about it. We did that with Carver.

I don’t think the community’s been as engaged or aware of how the schools were doing before. But now, because of the ASD and closings, it’s bubbling up. They’re aware.

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.”