Planning Commission Endorses School Freeze

By Bill Dries

There will be another vote probably next month. But the schools consolidation planning commission has endorsed the general idea that students in the merged Shelby County Schools system will have the same school assignments for at least the first two years of the merger.

The decision Thursday, April 12, comes with a few exceptions for school closings the countywide school board might feel are needed because of population shifts and transfers of students.

The idea of freezing school boundaries through the 2014-2015 school year addresses one of the two basic concerns many parents in both school systems have about the coming merger – where will their children attend school if they stay in the merged school system.

“I think that this recommendation … sends a very powerful message to the community,” said planning commissioner and countywide school board member David Pickler.

The planning commission didn’t make a specific recommendation just yet because it wants to align other parts of the transfer policy and how schools are used before voting on all of the pieces as a single policy recommendation.

Martavius Jones, who like Pickler serves on both the school board and the planning commission, cautioned that the attendance zone freeze shouldn’t get in the way of decisions about shifts of students after the merger date to relieve overcrowding that might mean some students attending schools in what is now the other school system.

“A lot of the overcrowding that takes place takes place close to the city-county line,” Jones said. “If there is a school that has room somewhere in Germantown that’s not too far that anyone can have, we shouldn’t have a situation where we are still forcing children to be in over-capacity schools.”

Planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott says the idea is to permit such transfers without changing the attendance zone boundaries.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools leaders and countywide school board members broke ground Wednesday for the new Southeast elementary school at Ridgeway Road and Belle Forest. The kindergarten through fifth grade school would open in the first year of the schools merger with a capacity of 900 students.

“We’ve got a lot of overcrowding and this is relieving it,” said countywide school board chairman Billy Orgel. “The capacity we need is in Hickory Hill and Southeast Shelby County.”

The evidence of that was in the students from surrounding schools who were part of the ceremony. There was a children’s choir from Germanshire Elementary School, an ROTC color guard from Kirby High School and a four-piece brass quartet from Overton High School.

The school is specifically aimed at relieving overcrowding at Germanshire as well as Oak Forest, Newberry, Winridge and Hickory Ridge elementary schools, meaning there will be changes in the attendance zone for students at those schools.

But Orgel says there will be a consistency to the neighborhood schools experience even with the changes because of where the school is being built.

“The majority of our kids are walking to school. I came and looked at it before we voted on it,” he said after taking a ceremonial shovel and hardhat with 22 other dignitaries and turning a shovel of dirt. “Vacant lots can be tough sometimes. Now you are going to have a nice school that’s going to be well maintained and houses ring the school.”

There were other signs of school changes last week. Westside Middle School in Frayser will add a sixth grade next school year, its first year as one of three schools in Frayser in the state-run Achievement School District.

Westside Middle principal Bobby White had been pushing for the additional grade to make his school a conventional middle school.

“That is key,” White said. “In a real middle school concept you get the sixth graders in and you get them before they are entrenched into that adolescent age. … You’re able to move forward in a much better fashion. We get them in as seventh graders. And it’s just a different story.”

ASD superintendent Chris Barbic said the additional grade helps with momentum in a feeder pattern from the Frayser elementary schools that feed into Westside Middle and from there into Frayser High School.

“As a principal one of your main responsibilities is to build a successful culture in the school,” Barbic said. “You won’t have this big bunch coming in in the seventh grade. And you’ve got three years with the kids versus two.”