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VOL. 125 | NO. 80 | Monday, April 26, 2010

Schoolhouse Shuffle

How old names, new schools and changing boundaries continue bedeviling the city and county

By Bill Dries

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On a cold February morning, a group of excited parents clustered in a tent in back of Kate Bond Elementary School.

Children stood in front of several panels with drawings of the new Kate Bond Middle to be built on what were then ball fields.

A blue, weathered trailer for an Elmore Park parent group stood closest to the tent, a reminder of the parental support in an area where several PTA groups are vocal and visible.

The heads of three PTAs put on yellow hard hats, picked up ceremonial shovels and joined city school officials in the groundbreaking.

Three weeks later, some of the same Memphis school officials were in an auditorium at Guthrie Elementary to talk about merging with nearby Caldwell Elementary.

Parents stopped at a sign-in table, some with children, some without. On a cinder block wall “Good Manners Are Very Important” was painted in royal blue. Some of the children regarded its list of greetings and compliments as a daily fact of life. Others stopped to take it in.

The 15-mile journey from Guthrie to Kate Bond is more than a distance. It represents very different transitions in the same school system.

For those children in the tent, it was a transition to a middle school promised years in advance.

For the children getting their first look at the rules for good manners, it was a transition to a new school. Both schools involved in that transition – Guthrie expanding as Caldwell closes this summer – were open before many of them were born.

The school-age population in city and county schools is declining. But it is also moving.

“Part of our school district in the east is growing very rapidly and we have an overcrowding situation in the eastern part of our system,” said Kriner Cash, Memphis City Schools superintendent. “And in the western part, we have under-enrollment, underutilized buildings and a dwindling community population in many parts.”

Long journey continues

The Memphis school system is still adjusting to annexations that happened years ago, which is the case with Kate Bond. And it is preparing for future annexations.

All of this movement is among the most emotional and politically volatile decisions any school board can make – opening a new school and closing an old one. Add a third element – trying to fill a decade-old school with waning enrollment.

“We’re aligning our capital plan with the annexations, with all of the things that have been going on for years and years. Now we’re bringing it under one big tent, getting it organized, coordinated and cost efficient,” Cash said. “It’s not just building a new building. It’s building a building that is now going to be aligned into our whole system of schools.”

Alignment was the message to the group at Guthrie Elementary as well. But it had a slightly different take.

“We have to be able to justify building new buildings,” Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer began. “We’ve been having some trouble in the past justifying expenditures because the buildings have not been fully populated. That’s the case at Guthrie right now.”

Guthrie’s enrollment in 10 years has been cut in half, going from 528 students in the 1999-2000 school year to 230 in 2009-2010.

Caldwell Elementary, a mile away, has had a more precipitous exodus.

Its enrollment was 890 students at the beginning of the decade. The current enrollment is 255 children.

The playing fields that will soon hold the foundation of Kate Bond Middle are new.

Guthrie, although the current school itself was opened 10 years ago, represents old Memphis. There has been a Guthrie School in Memphis since 1915.

The old and new labels aren’t meant to suggest past and present Memphis. They define parts of the city in very different stages of development.

Dave Wells Community Center, next to the Guthrie campus on Chelsea Avenue, remains abuzz with activity from a surrounding community that once thrived at the height of North Memphis’ industrial age.

City school officials have acknowledged the area’s comeback efforts as they have also put the numbers on the table.

Cash also has weighed in on the perpetual debate about whether schools grow communities or the other way around. He compared the business of growth to the weather.

“It’s hard to predict and it’s really hard to project in sort of the global economy and economic conditions that we are in,” he said. “I don’t think you build a school before you really know how things will shake out. I think the residential and community needs is what prompts the building. I don’t believe in building buildings to see who comes, because they will come.”

Old names, new places

The development of Uptown, less than a mile from Caldwell and Guthrie, has blurred the boundary between Downtown and North Memphis. It’s also had some unintended consequences, at least as far as school leaders are concerned.

“Let’s face it. There’s not much coordination between the city of Memphis and the Memphis City Schools,” Memphis school board president Martavius Jones said at the Guthrie meeting.

However, former Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration’s general goal for the Uptown area was that Manassas High School would become the Uptown high school with the elementary and middle schools in the area feeding into it.

The stakes are high because while a Manassas High School has been around for a long time, like Guthrie Elementary, it is an old name on a new building. Manassas High School isn’t operating at capacity either.

When the Hurt Village public housing project was demolished in recent years and the land where it stood wiped clean for new homes and apartments, many of the children who attended Caldwell Elementary went with it.

“Where that’s located right now,” Jones said, speaking of Uptown, “there was a slum. Where’d those people go? They are scattered throughout the whole city of Memphis.”

Carl Mabry, executive director of Bluff City Community Development Corp., has worked hard to bring the Uptown ripple effect north of Chelsea. His developments include Bickford Square and the two April Woods apartment buildings.

“They moved everybody to different places,” Mabry said of Hurt Village’s conversion to Uptown. “The goal was to bring a majority of the people back, which would increase the numbers. … A lot of the residents there had to leave. I think eventually the numbers will come back.”

Quincey Morris, the head of the Klondike-Smokey City Community Development Corp., has a different view.

“What they’re doing – they’re creating houses, but they’re moving out our people,” she told The Memphis News. “How can you make a community sustainable when you are constantly doing things to have an adverse affect on the community? I don’t think that they want the longstanding African-American communities to be longstanding.”

Mabry is working toward a community of newly arrived and longtime residents. He’s fought the doubts of lenders who were willing before the national recession hit. He’s worked the phones and taken the out-of-town financiers on tours of the area to win back their shaken confidence.


The passing of Caldwell Elementary shows how fleeting the mantle of school reform can be.
With much fanfare, the school went to a year-round school calendar in September 1995 – the first school in the system to adopt the reform used in other districts.
Under the leadership of principal Lirah Sabir, the school held its first homecoming for former and current students. The school also adopted uniforms when they were still voluntary.
The students published their own cook book. The school organized a Millenium Ball twice to raise money for class field trips.
And students were scoring well on state tests as faculty members won statewide awards.
The bubble burst in early 2003 when state education officials began evaluating how well the year-round school calendar had worked.
The previous spring, Sabir had locked some classroom doors and barred a test inspector from coming into the school building during testing.
State education officials found problems in the test scores. About one-fourth of the boys at Caldwell didn’t take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). So their scores didn’t count.
All special education students were exempted from taking the TCAP, which broke federal regulations. The jump in third grade test scores drew attention. In looking at the individual tests, investigators noticed a lot of erasures on numerous tests.
Sabir retired under pressure after nine years and city school officials began to say despite the need for accountability, there was perhaps too much of an emphasis on test scores and preparation for the tests.
Sabir denied any wrongdoing.
The school no longer has a year-round calendar.
But it is the home of River City High School, a small group of students who will attend classes elsewhere next school year. It is also home to the Perea pre-school program, which will be relocated to nearby Gordon Elementary School.

But Mabry is also aware that for parents who rent his apartments and decide to buy homes in the area, their primary consideration is the knowledge that their children will attend certain schools – public or private. If that certainty about a school changes, they might very well change their minds about where to live.

And the goal of sustainable development is for homeowners to choose to live there, and stay.

“Once you move the school … you pretty much almost kill the community,” Mabry told The Memphis News. “Most of the residents that live in Bickford Square, their kids do walk to Caldwell. They did have concerns about how kids were going to get to Guthrie.”

Bickford Park is the only thing that prevents someone at Bickford Square being able to see Caldwell Elementary.

“I don’t think you build a school before you really know how things will shake out. I think the residential and community needs is what prompts the building. I don’t believe in building buildings to see who comes, because they will come.”

– Kriner Cash
Superintendent, Memphis City Schools

About a mile stretches between Guthrie and Caldwell, which meant the initial proposal to close Caldwell didn’t include bus transportation for its students who have mostly a straight-shot walk along Danny Thomas Boulevard and then Chelsea.

The mile that the Caldwell-turned-Guthrie students would walk early in the morning includes some of the most desolate, blighted areas in the city, with abandoned houses, storefronts, overgrown lots and police patrols.

Cash has since said his administrators will likely move Guthrie’s starting time to a bit later in the morning and will work on possibly providing some bus service. Another option is a more visible police presence during the time students are walking to and from the school.

Hulking specters

One of Mabry’s other concerns is Caldwell’s closing will be handled like past school closings – leaving a vacant building to deteriorate over the years.

“Obviously this community didn’t need another vacant building,” he said.

The “bones” of old schools litter the inner city. The broken, hollowed out shell of the old Manassas can be seen from the new Manassas.

“No building operated by Memphis City Schools will ever be left empty,” Hamer pledged. “Even if we change what we do, we are not leaving empty buildings in any community.”

The school system is negotiating with the KIPP Diamond Academy to occupy Caldwell.

KIPP currently has 300 students in grades five through eight. It operates out of a building attached to Cypress Middle School.

The charter school has ambitious plans for a kindergarten through 12th grade school at Caldwell, which was built in 1959 for 1,500 students.

Cash has said other entities might be interested in the school as well. Mabry would like to see KIPP use the building.

But he’s concerned those near what is now Caldwell might not realize it is a free school. What is sometimes a competition for funding between charter schools, which are Memphis public schools, and more conventional city schools is also something Mabry said bears watching despite the “positive spin” about a possible lease.

“If it happens or not, I guess we’ll find out,” he said.

Among the guests at the Kate Bond groundbreaking was Aubrey Howard.


Kate Bond was a lifelong resident of Bartlett on a street that was named for her.
She was born in 1886, the daughter of a squire on the old Shelby County Quarterly Court, the predecessor to today’s Shelby County Commission.
She lived at the corner of Kate Bond and Stage roads until her death in 1974 at age 88.
Her neighbors marveled at the flowers she grew on the property. She was so successful that she and another relative started a business from the home that supplied flowers to the city’s hotels.
The log house burned after her death, but items from the Bond family can be found in the Gotten House Museum in Bartlett.
The Bartlett city limits end at Kate Bond and Stage. The elementary school named in her honor is south of the city limits.

Howard introduced himself by acknowledging that most in the tent had never heard of the committee he chairs. The Needs Assessment Committee, formed in 2003, makes recommendations to the Shelby County Commission because county government is the major local funder of both school systems.

The path to the February groundbreaking for Kate Bond Middle was longer than some parents in the area would have preferred.

At a May 2009 meeting of the Needs Assessment Committee, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz questioned why it should be built, since nearby Dexter elementary and middle schools are in the Memphis annexation reserve area.

The answer from the school system was it could take years to annex those areas, including a possible court fight the city would be heavily favored to win but that could add another eight to 10 years of overcrowding at surrounding grade schools.

Then-city school board chairman Tomeka Hart acknowledged Ritz’s point and in the past has even said the idea of a single public school system should be discussed. But she conceded it would be a lengthy, painful and messy conversation that most political leaders aren’t ready to take on.

Until then, she told Ritz the two school systems have to take care of students within their boundaries, which are more than lines on map. They are political fault lines.

In 2002, the city of Memphis annexed the Countrywood and Berryhill neighborhoods that are the attendance zone for Kate Bond Middle. It included the most lucrative piece of commercial real estate in terms of city property tax revenue in Memphis – Wolfchase Galleria.

The Memphis City Council had approved the annexation in 1995. Lawsuits followed and so did state legislation in 1997 that permitted residents to incorporate as what were nicknamed “toy” or “tiny” towns. The Herenton administration fought the state law in court and won in a ruling the former mayor counts as one of his biggest accomplishments in 18 years in office.

By 2002, the annexation was a fact, but there was no funding to build a city school to handle the estimated 2,500 students in the annexed area. The two public school systems reached another in a series of agreements by which the county school system kept running what was a city school.

Kate Bond Elementary School opened in August 1993 to 1,050 students as a part of the Shelby County school system.

It became a Memphis school when classes opened for the 2004-2005 school year. The city school system approved a $3 million addition of 10 rooms in 2007 to replace 15 portable classrooms.

The portables symbolize the paradox of overcrowding in a school system whose overall student head count is decreasing. Some parents expecting a new school to meet the population growth watched as their children moved through the elementary and middle school years attending classes in portables while the grass grew and kids played ball on the land behind Kate Bond Elementary.

The city school board approved funding for Kate Bond Middle School in 2007. But it was shelved to instead build a new Colonial Middle School in East Memphis. Kate Bond’s funding was approved last summer through tax free financing backed by the federal government.

The current Kate Bond Elementary enrollment is 1,016 students – all of them bound for a middle school after the fifth grade.

If they stay in the Memphis school system and the area, those students will begin attending Kate Bond Middle School starting with the 2011-2012 school year. They will be joined at the middle school by students from Kingsbury, Chimneyrock and Shelby Oaks grade schools.

Chimneyrock becomes a Memphis city school this summer after several extended years in the county school system. The attendance zone boundaries for Chimneyrock were set this month. Another new K-5 city school in the area, Riverwood Elementary on Dexter Lane, opens this fall.

While the parents of Caldwell students want bus transportation, the parents of the schools that will feed into Kate Bond Middle want less of it.

“It reduces the amount of busing we have,” said Brian Shipp, executive director of facilities management for the school system. “Some of the students from Chimneyrock that would feed into Cordova Middle School, now they have the other option when they are aligned district-wide to feed into Kate Bond Middle School.”

The temporary agreements to have the county school system run city schools has created confusion for parents and stalled significant investments in existing schools that will transfer from one school system to the other on an uncertain date.

And the transfer is not immune to the concerns many parents of county school students have about being part of the city school system.

Cash said he understands the doubts of parents who bought a house with the idea that it would mean their children attended a certain school in a certain school system.

“Historically, I don’t blame them,” he told The Memphis News. “It’s been a mess. It’s been a hodgepodge. You get a school and then it has a bunch of trailers. There’s never been a really good plan to start with when we blend and merge schools into our overall system.”

Cash is vowing a “feeder pattern” that will be “seamless.”

He made the same vow to the Guthrie and Caldwell parents.

“It’s not your typical recommendation to close a school,” he said later.

While Hamer emphasized the financial considerations, Cash was more adamant that the decision was more about a better educational outcome.

“We do it first on enhancing educational programs,” he said. “It’s not the same old, same old – low enrollment, close the school and then the whole community dies, in effect.”

PROPERTY SALES 40 220 16,417
MORTGAGES 28 85 10,172
BUILDING PERMITS 161 826 39,370
BANKRUPTCIES 29 136 7,733