One school at a time, one child at a time, impact of school closures goes beyond budgets

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Anita Smith stands with grandson Jaylan Jones (second from left) and his friends in front of Lincoln Elementary School during its last months of operation in 2015. Shelby County Schools is tracking the academic performance of displaced Lincoln students who now attend A.B. Hill Elementary.

Over the years, teachers at Orleans Elementary School in Memphis came to learn Jazmea Partee’s study habits, quirks and mood changes. Concerned whenever she missed school, they even texted her mother to check on their student.

But after Jazmea completed third grade in 2012, Orleans was closed by administrators with the former Memphis City Schools. Along with her classmates, she was moved to Lincoln Elementary, a school around the corner. In the shuffle, however, Jazmea lost track of teachers and friends, and her grades suffered.

“I hated when they closed that school,” said her mother, Shawn Partee. “It was hard for Jazmea. Everybody got split up.”

Like Jazmea, students like Jaylan Jones haven’t thrived with change. Since moving to Lincoln after his first-grade year at Orleans, he has struggled with schoolwork and conduct. “That transition was really difficult,” recalled Anita Smith, his grandmother.

Test scores at Lincoln Elementary dipped last year. Now, district administrators are targeting to close that school as well and send its students to A.B. Hill Elementary.

In Memphis, closures of underperforming schools have become an annual affair, especially in the wake of the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools. The idea behind the school closings is both to save money through consolidation and move students out of struggling schools and into better ones.

However, multiple studies show that students moved from recently closed schools don’t consistently experience test score gains. In fact, in cases such as Jazmea’s and Jaylan’s, their scores suffer.

While no specific available data addresses scores for Memphis children who have been moved due to school closings, all but one of the schools that received students from closed schools experienced significant drops in test scores. Lincoln suffered the district’s largest drop, with half as many students meeting the state’s math standards in 2013 than had in 2012.

According to educators and experts, students who are moved – and their families – often fumble attempts to navigate unfamiliar settings. They struggle to tap into resources such as counseling services, tutoring and after-school programs. Meanwhile, teachers must attempt to gauge their new students’ academic levels and then seek to catch them up with the rest of the class.

More closures

The Board of Education of Shelby County Schools is scheduled to decide March 31 whether to close Lincoln Elementary and South Side Middle schools as part of Superintendent Dorsey Hopkins’ latest plan to save money and boost test scores. Under the proposal, hundreds of other students would be pulled from at least three other schools and sent to surrounding schools. In all, the plan could affect 2,030 students.

Over the last three years, board members with Memphis City and Shelby County schools have closed 16 schools, impacting 3,555 students.

Orleans Elementary School is closed and boarded up today – one of HOW MANY schools in Memphis shuttered since 2012. Its students were transferred to Lincoln Elementary, one of two more schools targeted for closure at the end of this school year by Shelby County Schools.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Orleans Elementary School is closed and boarded up today – one of 16 schools in Memphis shuttered since 2012.

Board members say they are concerned about the well-being of students who are affected, in addition to the neighborhoods that are impacted.

“We live and die by data,” said chairwoman Teresa Jones, posing a list of concerns. “What’s happening to children that have been merged with children in the past? Are they getting better instruction? In a better facility? Are they getting the extra help that they need?”

Under the latest plan, administrators propose sending all of the impacted students to the district’s Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, a cluster of schools that have received millions of city, state and federal dollars to hire more effective teachers, add hours onto the school day, and implement other academic interventions. It’s the district’s most expensive turnaround effort yet.

“This is truly, in my mind, about student achievement and investing in neighborhoods that have been neglected for a long time,” Hopson said about the iZone at a recent board meeting. “The reality is that these kids need extra help. By combining these schools and using a framework that’s proven, undeniably working, we’re going to get them that help. We believe we will improve their educational experience and put them on track to be some of the good stories in 2025.”

While the ultimate goal is eventually to boost student test scores, the act of closing schools has unintended consequences, according to research.

A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Urban Economics tracked an unidentified district in the Northeast that closed several academically struggling schools and sent the students to schools with higher value-added test scores. The scores of students who were moved actually dipped in their new school, where many of their former teachers also were moved.

Ronald Zimmer, a researcher who worked on the study at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, notes that the district failed to rid itself of teachers at the old school who were partially responsible for the low test scores – a crucial mistake, he said.

“The key here, it was only an effective strategy if [the schools they were sent to] were dramatically better in achievement,” Zimmer said. “Otherwise, it has an adverse effect for students in the short term. It could be the lack of stability or being in the same peer environment. Our conclusion was that if you have to close schools, it’s not a terrible strategy, but you have to get them in much better schools for there not to be adverse effects for students.”

In Memphis’ iZone schools, all teachers have had to reapply for their jobs, and only top-performing teachers are hired back. During a February presentation to parents, administrators used colorful charts to show how much more their children should learn at their new iZone schools.

“We think it’s a blessing that you may be joining our schools,” Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent, told parents.

Welcoming strategies

Another study conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that many students whose schools were closed in Chicago in 2013 didn’t attend the new school they were sent to because of transportation hurdles and feeling unwelcome, said Molly Gordon, an analyst who worked on the study.

“Did they have open houses, welcome new families in?” Gordon asked. “We noticed welcoming schools got a huge influx of students. Oftentimes, families are upset because they’re losing after-school programs and support services in closed schools.”

Griffin said she was impressed that some Memphis schools held open houses for parents and teachers moving from 10 schools closed last year by Shelby County Schools. She said those welcoming strategies potentially could be replicated at schools receiving new students from schools targeted for closure at the end of this school year.

For Jazmea, who is now 11 and finishing the fifth grade, school life seems to be stabilizing again. She struggles with division in math class but is being tutored in the subject. She’s made new friends through the school’s majorette squad, and her mother is getting to know new teachers. Next year, Partee plans to send her daughter to Soulsville, a charter school across town that offers an after-school dance program.

“The biggest concern to me is having the kids be with better teachers – more teachers that care,” Partee said. “It’s difficult every time they close a school.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

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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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”