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VOL. 129 | NO. 16 | Friday, January 24, 2014

School Closings Discussion on Different Tracks

By Bill Dries

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You couldn’t call it a debate.

Shelby County Schools board members continue public hearings next week on possible school closings. So far the hearings have raised broader questions about school usage in general. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But there is clearly a conflict in the way those affected by a slate of 13 possible school closings view what is happening in many of those schools and what Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson views what is not happening.

The public hearings on the possible school closings move to the schools themselves Monday, Jan. 27, after an opening hearing last week at the Shelby County Board of Education auditorium.

The Monday evening meetings at Alcy Elementary and Vance Middle Schools both start at 5:30 p.m.

A vocal standing-room-only crowd of 300 turned out last week, many carrying signs reading “Don’t Kill Our Community” and “I Am Northside” and “Save Our Schools.”

“What you are going to see up here, I’m assuming is going to hurt you like it hurt me,” Hopson said at the outset, pointing to a screen that later showed the letter grades “F” and “D” that all of the schools on the list got from the Tennessee Department of Education for student achievement. “We have failed these schools for a long, long time. I’m not going to sugar coat it. … What I know is that education for a whole lot of our babies is the last best chance to change their lives. … If we are not providing a quality education, what we are doing is a disservice.”

But supporters of Alcy Elementary touted a whole range of programs the South Memphis school offers.

The school’s website shows 11 organizations that are “adopters” of the South Memphis school including three churches.

“We help with the TCAP thing,” the Rev. Robert Pope said, referring to the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.

Alcy also has the only U.S. Dream Academy in the state. Dream Academy is an after-school and mentoring program.

“I’m not certain that the literacy rate is what we are seeing,” said Keith Williams, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

Williams was specifically questioning Hopson’s system-wide call for improving the 28 percent of third graders who are reading at or above grade level.

After hearing that several times over the two-hour session, Hopson reacted.

“I didn’t make it up,” he said evenly.

“Smaller schools can be more effective schools,” Williams countered.

But Hopson said smaller schools are not able to offer the programs that larger schools can. They are the programs that make a school more diverse in its offerings. If people want every school to offer more than what are the basics at every school now, Hopson argued, it can’t be done with schools that range widely in their enrollment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Vanacek was among the backers of Cypress Middle School. The federal prosecutor’s office is an adopter of Cypress. Vanacek talked about the impact of nearby KIPP Academy, a charter school, saying the school is “only taking the ones it wants” and “is not a substitute for a truly public school.”

K.T. Franklin, a 1971 graduate of Northside High School, blamed the decisions to phase out vocational education programs that were once a major part of Northside, including an auto shop and printing shop, for the school’s decline in enrollment.

He and others also attribute it to the opening of the new Manassas and Douglas high schools in North Memphis. When those two high schools were being built, enrollment at Northside spiked just after the start of the millennium. The new Manassas opened after a brief interim following the closing of the old Manassas. The new Douglass High School opened decades after the old Douglass was closed.

Hopson sees larger trends in which the school-age population is shifting from west to east in Shelby County.

“I grew up in South Memphis, before I got to Whitehaven, over by Wicks and Mississippi,” he said. “Fast forward 30 years and the number of kids are just not there. Nobody can argue with me about the population trend. It is what it is.”

The schools children would be transferred to are not better academically in every case or in some cases are only marginally better as measured by state education officials through student achievement test standards.

Hopson plans to target some of those “receiving schools” for pilot programs that are to begin with the new school year. That would include literacy pilot programs the school system is collaborating with the University of Memphis on and a “blended learning” pilot program in 16 schools involving giving students digital devices loaded with a curriculum coordinated with what is being taught during the school day.

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