Shelby County Schools wants to close more schools, expand iZone

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Shelby County Schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and the legacy Shelby County district.

Shelby County School administrators want to shutter two chronically underperforming schools, transform two under-enrolled schools, pull hundreds of students from three schools being taken over by the state, and re-enroll those students at schools nearby.

A sweeping proposal to rejigger where students attend schools in several low-income neighborhoods was presented Tuesday during a work session of the Shelby County School Board.

The plan could prevent the district from losing hundreds more students to the state’s Achievement School District (ASD), which is tasked with taking over chronically underperforming schools either by directly operating the schools or handing them over to charter organizations, which are publicly funded but independently operated organizations.

The board is scheduled to vote March 31 on the proposed changes.

Almost all of the students affected would be moved to Memphis’ Innovation Zone, known as the iZone, a costly but mostly effective effort to improve academic outcomes through interventions such as overhauling teaching staff, bringing in a new principal, and providing special flexibilities from state laws.

The ASD has agreed not to interfere with schools in the district’s iZone, which have outperformed several ASD schools.

“At some of these [district] schools, 80 percent of these kids can’t read,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the board. “That’s not cutting it. … The question is: Do you want your school to be operated by the Izone or the ASD? That’s the question we have to ask. If you look at the results of iZone, I think the results speak for itself.”

Administrators asked the board to close Lincoln Elementary School, one of the state’s lowest performing schools, and move the students to A.B. Hill Elementary School, which would be brought into the iZone. They proposed closing South Side Middle School, where only one-fourth of the students are meeting basic state expectations, and to move its students to Riverview Middle School, which currently operates as an iZone school.

Hopson asked the board to pull students from Brookmeade and Spring Hill Elementary and Airways Middle schools, which are being taken over by the state a grade at a time, and to send them to nearby schools.

Administrators also asked to turn Northaven School which currently serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade into an elementary school and to turn Woodstock Middle and High School into a middle school because of under-enrollment. Northaven Middle School students would be sent to Woodstock Middle School and Woodstock High School students would be sent to Trezevant High School.

The plan, if approved, would downsize staff and shutter several buildings for the financially strapped district, saving an estimated $2.8 million. Several dozen buildings scattered across Memphis either are more than half empty or shuttered because of closings in recent years and hundreds of families having moved out of economically depressed areas. The district has laid off several hundred teachers in response to a drop in tax revenue and losing several thousand students to new charter and municipal schools.

The proposed closings, which will be debated at community meetings during the next several weeks, are bound to stir frustrations. Parents and teachers have complained that recent closings have caused unnecessary chaos.

“You know we’re going to fight this,” said Toni Jackson, a South Side physical education teacher who has opposed previous state efforts to take over the school. “The gloves are coming off.”

The plan is partly in response to the looming fate of almost a third of its schools being lost to the ASD.

Several of the ASD-approved charter organizations have taken over schools one grade at a time, creating an awkward situation for district employees who operate in the same building but know their jobs likely will end soon. Hopson has said that services such as clerical work and professional development often are duplicated and that teacher morale and retention is low.

The ASD has argued that colocation gives charter schools time to perfect their models and traditional public schools an opportunity to share resources and best practices.

The district wants to move seventh- and eighth-graders at Airways Middle School to Sherwood Middle School, an iZone school; second- through fifth-grade students at Brookmeade Elementary to Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School, also an iZone school; and fourth- and fifth-graders at Spring Hill Elementary School to Keystone Elementary School.

Westwood Elementary would remain co-located with Freedom Prep Elementary next year because no nearby school can accommodate its third- through fifth-grade students.

The iZone expansion effort would be funded by money the district will receive from a newly announced funding settlement with the city, as well as philanthropic and federal money.

Board members said Tuesday that this is the first time they’ve seen a schools closing plan that involves an academic pitch to parents. Board Chairwoman Teresa  Jones noted that students who move schools rarely see academic gains.

“We live and die by data,” Jones said. “Are they getting better instruction? This is a contentious process and it brings about some emotion, but I think that if we’re asking parents to believe what we’re saying, consider this and trust us, then we have to be willing to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”