Superintendent Dorsey Hopson pulled his recommendation Tuesday night to close Dunbar Elementary, one of two Memphis schools on the chopping block as Shelby County Schools seeks to address district-wide issues with low enrollment, aging buildings and subpar academics.

The other school, Carnes Elementary, will close as proposed this spring following a unanimous vote by the school board.

Hopson announced that he was tabling for now his recommendation to close Dunbar. The school board already had supported shuttering the school in the first of two votes necessary for closure. But in a surprise move before the second vote, the superintendent reversed course, citing the school’s recent academic gains and looking at ways to address its high building maintenance costs.

To help the school continue to progress academically, Hopson said the district will add an hour to Dunbar’s school day, hire additional instructional coaches, and pursue a $150,000 grant to bolster literacy work. The school board will ask the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for an additional $3.2 million to cover maintenance needs.

The change of heart means that, for now, Memphis’ historic Orange Mound neighborhood will keep its last elementary school operated by Shelby County Schools. Aspire Public Schools operates a pair of state-run charter schools at its Hanley campus in Orange Mound.

But the school still has numerous hurdles to overcome. Dunbar ranks eighth worst in the district in building efficiency when comparing the cost to repair the building with the cost to replace it. It also landed on the State Department of Education’s 2016 warning list of schools at risk of state intervention due to poor academic performance.

But unlike other Memphis schools that already have been shuttered, Dunbar does not meet all the criteria for closure, Hopson said later.

“The building is not underutilized. There is a critical mass of kids in there,” he said. “And there are whole lot of people willing to put their necks on the line to improve the school. We have a clamoring for community support. So when you have authentic community support that is actually willing to work, … that contributed to my decision.”

This is the second time in as many years that Dunbar has been on the brink of closure.

The latest reversal was met with glee by Orange Mound parents, teachers and community members who showed up in force to support their school. Last week, more than 300 people had attended a community meeting at the school to discuss the proposed closure. That’s when Hopson and his team began to piece together an alternative plan. On Monday, he met with school staff to see what kind of supports might work.

Khamari McElroy, fifth-grade student president at Dunbar Elementary School, asks school board members to keep his school open.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

Khamari McElroy, a fifth-grader who is Dunbar’s student body president, spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting and said later that his superintendent made the right call. “I love going to Dunbar, and I’m so happy and excited other people know why,” he said.

Neighborhood leader Claudette Boyd said Dunbar’s history makes the school vital to Orange Mound, recently named a “Preserve America Community” by former first lady Michelle Obama.

“Dunbar was built in 1958 in the middle of a bustling African-American neighborhood,” Boyd said. “I hope every community realizes from what happened tonight the power of when a community unites around what’s best for its children.”

Joyce Coleman, who is president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, said the community must stay involved to keep the momentum going.

“We need to support our principal and her vision for the school,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t expecting this decision, but it means everything for our neighborhood and our babies.”

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.