sorting the students

Facing closure, some Memphis parents hope to form K-8 school, but others aren’t sold

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

About 35 frustrated parents and teachers from Manor Lake Elementary School made it clear to district officials in a recent meeting that they don’t want their school merged with a nearby middle school.

The reaction from Manor Lake parents dashed hopes that a proposal from other parents to combine the school with Geeter Middle School would gain support.

The parents who made the proposal are part of a larger leadership group representing the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which both schools will enter next year. Also in that group are students, teachers, and community leaders who represent a cluster of low-performing neighborhood schools.

Shelby County Schools officials had hoped that a proposal generated by parents would help win support from other parents in the neighborhood because parents rarely support closing a school.

Some of the parents at Manor Lake told district officials they fear the influence of older students if their school is combined with Geeter.

The district hopes that if the schools in that zone work together, test scores will improve. Parent and community leaders said the consolidation would stave off closure by the district, which would scatter students to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood.

District leaders saw the move as a way to avoid state takeover by combining resources into one building, allowing them to direct more money to improving academic performance. Both Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle feed into Fairley High School, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addresses Manor Lake Elementary parents.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the ASD,” said Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone.

Manor Lake teacher Lisa Chalmers said even though the proposal would allow students to stick together, she was worried about the blight of another empty building in an area that has experienced many school closures in recent years.

“I know they [the state] want our schools. But we want our schools too,” she said.

District leaders described the school’s declining test scores, poor building condition, and low enrollment as other reasons for combining the schools, which are both at risk of closure. Teachers in the audience attributed the lack of academic growth to adding students from at least two schools that had been closed in recent years.

Either way, the schools will face disruption going into next school year. As part of entering the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone next year, all teachers at both schools will have to re-apply to their positions — a common practice among turnaround programs.

The meeting last week was the second convened by district leaders after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the proposal to the school board last month. Parents said the proposal came as a surprise and that they didn’t know about the first meeting held soon after Hopson’s announcement.

Proponents of combining elementary and middle grades say if students change schools fewer times between kindergarten and 12th grade, they perform better on tests. But studies on the topic are mixed. A 2011 University of Minnesota review of relevant studies said more research is needed to be definitive.

Sherrie Jackson, who despite not living in Manor Lake’s boundary chose the school for her two children, called the idea “ludicrous” because she didn’t want her rising kindergartner to be in the same building as eighth graders.

“What if one of these small children get hurt with those big kids over there?” she asked. “The more kids you have in the school, the less one-on-one time they get.”

Hunter said elementary and middle school students would be on separate floors of the building, a similar set up to the district’s 13 other K-8 schools.

“The only thing that’s going to make you feel totally better is when you see it and live it,” he told Jackson during the meeting. Still, Jackson and others said they would take their students elsewhere if the district goes through with the proposal.

“I’m just going to have to look around, probably transfer her, see where I can find a school for her to go to that’s K through fifth grade,” said Kimeri Golden, whose daughter is a third-grader at Manor Lake, after the meeting.

The school board is scheduled to give its final vote on the proposal at its regular meeting in April.

school closures

What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

PHOTO: Katie Kull/Chalkbeat
After Vance Middle School closed, math scores of students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School went up, while reading scores went down. (Pictured here in 2016)

Student reading test scores from three closed schools in Memphis generally improved in their new school, but math scores decreased, according to a 2017 Shelby County Schools report Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson requested the study in 2016 as the district’s model for closing schools evolved to include combining students from several buildings and assigning them to one new school, but the report was never presented publicly.

The report concluded that “overall, transferring students from underperforming to more stable schools seems to improve outcomes for transferred students, and in some cases, students attending the schools accepting them.” It went on to say that “we recommend continued, concentrated academic support for students transferring from failing schools.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have framed school closures in Memphis as painful but necessary as the district seeks to free up money to support a majority of students who come from poor families. But more often than not, students were assigned to go to schools that had similar or worse test scores than the school they were leaving.


From the archives: Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012


Hopson said the lesson from those school closures was that a new model was needed.

“You get so much backlash and it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building,” Hopson said recently. “So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money. But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.”

That model worked for Westhaven Elementary, which has boosted test scores faster than most schools in Tennessee both years it has been open. The school combined Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven elementary schools, which were among the lowest performing in the state, into one new building.

Hopson’s massive facilities plan presented last month would replicate that model in 10 more neighborhoods in what he says will prevent the mixed results seen with other school closures.


Related: The inside peek at how Westhaven Elementary became the new model for school closures


The study doesn’t include all 17 schools that have closed during Hopson’s tenure. The state canceled testing in 2016 for students in third through eighth grades, making tracking their performance over time more difficult, Hopson said. The report examined student test scores from Graves Elementary and Vance Middle, which closed in 2014, and Northside High, which closed in 2016.

Little research focuses on the effects of school closures on student achievement. However, a 2009 report suggests that Chicago students benefited when they transferred to significantly higher-performing schools. In New York City, a 2015 study found that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked schools actually benefited students forced to enroll elsewhere.

Here’s how students performed at each of the schools in the Memphis study:

Graves Elementary School

About 70 Graves Elementary students, or 35 percent, enrolled at Ford Road Elementary, the school the district assigned for them after closure. Most of the other Graves students enrolled at other schools within the district.

Reading and math scores on Tennessee’s TNReady test rose for the Graves students at Ford Road, which already had additional district resources as part of the Innovation Zone, created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest performing schools.

While reading scores for the rest of Ford Road Elementary rose about four percentage points during that year, math scores dipped at the same rate, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Northside High School

About 80 students from Northside High School, or 43 percent, enrolled at Manassas High, as outlined in the district’s plan for re-assigning students.

Of those former Northside High students, the percent of students on grade level increased by about 5 percentage points, but algebra test scores remained flat. Other students at Manassas High saw a small increase in reading scores, but algebra proficiency dropped from 4 percent to 0 percent, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Vance Middle School

Vance Middle School students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School after their school closed in 2014 saw their math scores go up and reading scores go down.

There were no middle school students to compare them to at B.T. Washington because Vance students were the first middle school class at the downtown school.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

You can read Shelby County Schools’ full report below.

Charter Schools

City University Boys charter school appeals to Tennessee board to stay open

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
City University Boys Preparatory enrolled 88 students as of August.

A small middle school for boys has appealed the decision of Shelby County Schools not to renew its 10-year charter.

City University Schools filed its appeal to the State Board of Education late Friday, calling the district “unfair” for not renewing one its two middle schools — effectively closing it after the end of this school year.

“We look forward to… an opportunity to share our vantage point that we believed hampered our ability to garner the immediate renewal from Shelby County Schools for which we believe …our school earned and is qualified,” the appeal said.

If the appeal is successful, the middle school for boys, which as of August enrolled 88 students, could remain open for another 10 years.

A hearing with the state board will be set for January, said a board spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing charter schools, but lately has ramped up oversight to evaluate charter school applications, and existing schools with low test scores and poor operations. When charter schools open, they are awarded 10-year charters, making this the first time a charter school has existed long enough under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s administration to be eligible for renewal.

Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has only overturned 15 out of 72 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter. That includes a vote in 2012 about two City University schools, when the state board kicked back a decision to the Memphis school board.

The Shelby County Schools board voted 6-3 earlier this month to close City University Boys Preparatory in line with a recommendation from district staff, after looking at 10 years of state test data, finances, and measures of school environment such as student discipline. (Three other schools’ charters were renewed.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lemoyne Robinson, chancellor of City University charter schools.

Lemoyne Robinson, the charter network’s chancellor, said the district was partially to blame for low test scores because it defaulted on promised academic interventions and resources that he said were part of an annual fee the school paid to the district. The network’s appeal describes expectations such as curriculum support for teachers and student data management systems.

When the city school system folded into the county system in 2013, those resources disappeared, Robinson said.

Chalkbeat examined the contract, but did not see the resources Robinson cited in the appeal.

“The lack of access to these resources upon which the school had relied was disruptive and greatly affected the school and the academic attainment of its scholars,” network leaders said in his letter to the state. “Within a year of the scholars’ assessment, scores regressed.”

Even if there weren’t issues with test scores, Robinson said the district failed to properly evaluate the entire 10-year history of the school by the deadline outlined in state law. That technicality should throw out the district’s case, he said. Shelby County Schools said “the school received all of the pertinent performance data for which they are held accountable.”

Below is City University’s summary of its appeal to the state board.