Giving truth to Memphis youth
By Sudeshna Barman
Earlier this year on April 23, superintendent Dorsey Hopson recommended that 11 schools be closed down for the 2014-2015 school year.
These schools include Carver, Northside, and Westwood high schools; Corry and Lanier middle schools; and Shannon, Riverview, Alcy, Graves, and Westhaven elementary schools. Also slated for closure is E. A. Harrold Elementary School in Millington.
Factors in possible school closures are low enrollment as well as concerns about the physical condition of school buildings and course offerings. The smaller a school, the less likely it is to offer honors, Advanced Placement or dual enrollment courses.
Skeptics, however, point to a desire to save money on the part of the school board. Early reports suggest that SCS could potentially save more than nearly $5 million by shutting down these 11 schools.
As a Memphis Daily News article explains it, Carver students would move to Booker T. Washington and Hamilton high schools. Students from Westwood would attend Fairley and Mitchell high schools.
Northside High students would be transferred to Manassas and Douglass high schools. The shift would mean some Douglass students would then be zoned into East High School.
Britney Sanders, a sophomore at Northside, said, “No one really cares that Northside’s closing. Teachers care; they don’t want to lose their jobs. But students? Some do, but some really think it’s a good thing.”
On the other hand, students, parents, and staff at Carver High School have
organized, meeting several times to fight the closure. One student who leads the fight to keep Carver open is senior Kemario Davis.
He said, “We have about 380 students that attend Carver right now. Of them, I can say there’s at least 35 young men I know personally that may be associated with a gang. For seven, eight hours a day, those young men are out in the street, doing things that will get them to one of two places: in jail, or in someone’s mortuary.”
“It’s important to keep Carver open because, in a community like ours, you need something every can love and feel togetherness about. You need something for people to say, ‘This is who we are.’ This school is this community. Without this school, we lose everything,” Davis said.
Davis credits Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Baptist Church and other community leaders with helping the fight to keep Carver open, but even he acknowledges the unlikelihood of Carver continuing as it traditionally has.
There is one hope for Carver High School: to become a part of the Achievement School District.
The Achievement School District, or ASD, is a state-wide school district with a mission to “catapult the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25 percent in the state within five years.” Most of the ASD schools are charter schools run by local and national charters.
Currently, 68 out of the 85 bottom five percent of schools in Tennessee are clustered in Memphis. The ASD is now in charge of 15 city schools in Memphis. Next year, it will add eight more here, including its first high schools. These will be Frayser High School and either Carver or Fairley High School.
Likely Frayser will be operated not by a charter, but the ASD itself. Either Carver or Fairley, on the other hand, will be matched to a private charter school operator in December. Currently, the potential operator is Green Dot, a charter school system that operates 15 schools in the Los Angeles area.
ASD schools have school days that are longer by an hour or more, and some Saturday sessions. They also have an extended school year, minimizing summer vacations. The student-to-teacher ratio is generally 25:1 or lower.
Davis said that students at Carver don’t really want a charter school, but have no other choice.
“There are so many bad stories about rules, about what happens at a charter school. But if the ASD doesn’t take over, we risk having Carver shut down and I think students really understand that,” he said
On Nov. 7, Davis attended a meeting with Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, and a representative from Green Dot, where participants discussed the process of taking over the school.
“We asked them about the possible change of the school’s identity,” Davis said. “I mean, we just don’t know what will happen. Will the name change? They promised that a lot of things will stay the same—school colors, the school mascot.”
All teachers and administrators who want to stay at the schools joining the ASD will have to reapply for their jobs. Students can opt out and attend another local public school instead. If they do not, they are assured of a spot in the ASD.
The Innovation Zone, or iZone, is the SCS district’s corollary to the ASD. Like ASD students, iZone students will face extended school hours, some Saturday school, and a longer school year.
The main difference is that ASD schools are run by the state, but iZone schools remain under the local SCS school board’s control. ASD are mostly charter schools, but iZone schools are not.
iZone principals can choose how students will spend their extra hour of class each day and when it will be scheduled. The administrations of iZone schools have the authority to make each hire themselves. All teachers will have the reapply for their jobs, and each applicant must have at least a 3 on the state’s 1-to-5 teacher evaluation system.
There are currently 13 schools in the iZone, with five more joining next year. For the first time, the Innovation Zone will include high schools: Trezevant, Hamilton, and Melrose.
LiTia Petties, a senior at Melrose, said, “I know people are upset about the extra hour. We’re all asking, ‘Why is this happening to us? Why do we have to go to school for an extra hour?’ It’ll mess with our schedules, with picking up our brothers and sisters.”
Petties said the effects of the iZone are still unclear. “People might drop out, or transfer schools. But [most of them], they’ll just have to stick with it, even though it’s a big change. Some people are saying they’ll keep us in school until four. We just don’t know what to think.”
Drama about suburban school districts complicates the situation even further. Last August, suburban voters voted to approve separate school districts in Germantown, Millington, Lakeland, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett. A federal judge struck down this vote, ruling it unconstitutional because the Tennessee legislature had passed a general law that only applied to Shelby County
The suburbs tried again after the state legislature passed a law lifting the ban of the creation of municipal school districts. On July 16 this year, suburban districts were approved again by a greater margin. In fact, an overwhelming 94 percent in both Arlington and Collierville and 93 percent in Germantown voted ‘yes’ to separate districts.
Recently, there has been another twist in the suburban saga. On Oct. 22, SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson and his administration offered a plan in which SCS lets go of Millington, Lakeland, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett schools. However, they plan to keep schools in unincorporated areas, which do not formally belong to the city of Memphis or a single town, suburb, or municipality.
Hopson also wants to keep Germantown Elementary, Germantown Middle, Germantown High, and Lucy Elementary in Millington. That’s because a large percentage of their students live in the Memphis reserve area. Germantown has promised to enroll students in the current attendance zones, even those living outside the suburb. However, SCS refused to surrender the buildings, which angered municipal leaders. SCS and Germantown leaders are currently in settlement talks.
Germantown High senior Michaela Amos said, “[Students] are worried about what will happen to them next year, especially if they don’t actually live in Germantown. The new district has said that they want to allow all current students to attend next year, but if we only have one building, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to fit everyone.”
“The municipal district has said they want to keep these students for things like “diversity,” but a lot of kids aren’t sure exactly what will happen to them. Some kids have said their parents want to send them to private schools, but some will just keep attending wherever the system places them,” Amos said.
So what does all this mean?
Eight former SCS high schools joined the newly merged district this year: Germantown, Houston, Collierville, Arlington, Bartlett, Millington, Bolton, and Southwind. If—or more accurately when—the suburbs create new districts, only Bolton and Southwind (located in unincorporated areas) and potentially Germantown will remain in SCS.
The suburbs’ attempts to create new municipal school districts means that only two or three out of eight legacy SCS high schools will be a permanent part of the new SCS. Instead of one or even two school districts in Shelby County, we could end up with six or seven.
Amos supports municipal districts. “I think this district is way too big, and I know that there have been a lot of problems on switching over to new systems. I think in general not too many people are very happy about the new system,” she said.
Margaret Grace Haltom, a senior at White Station, takes the opposite stance. “I think the idea of [suburban districts] is offensive to [former] MCS students. We’re finally getting a chance at a system turnaround, and now the people who are supposed to be helping us are saying ‘You’re only going to bring us down.’ I don’t see why they wouldn’t be trying to help us, instead of viewing us as some sort of poison to their system,” Haltom said.