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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.