Hopson proposes big changes to three historic Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Since 1948, East High School has served students in Memphis.

Days after the state proposed taking control of Memphis Hillcrest High School for charter conversion, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has proposed merging the academically struggling school with Whitehaven High School.

In a presentation Tuesday evening to the Shelby County Board of Education, Hopson also proposed turning East High School into a Science Technology Engineering and Math magnet school.

Both plans would dramatically change the configuration and course offerings of the storied Memphis high schools in an attempt to boost test scores and reverse declining enrollments. They also could prove contentious among the schools’ strong alumni groups.

Hopson said he was surprised by a proposal unveiled last week by the state Achievement School District to take control of Hillcrest and turn it into a charter school — a plan he said he will attempt to block. He said he and his staff have been studying and planning for months a potential merger of Hillcrest and Whitehaven.

He wants freshmen at Whitehaven and Hillcrest to attend an academy at Hillcrest, with the rest of the school operating as a career and technical center. Students in grades 10-12 would attend Whitehaven.

“This is an opportunity to strengthen Whitehaven and to build upon such an outstanding record of high achievement,” said Hopson, a 1990 graduate of Whitehaven. “If you can take the DNA of Whitehaven and implement it around the corner and supplement a CTE program, you have the makings of something that could be really special.”

The ASD has proposed a Hillcrest charter conversion, possibly with California-based Green Dot Public Schools as the operator. A community meeting to discuss the plan is scheduled for this Saturday at noon at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options with the support of the ASD.

Under Hopson’s other proposal, East High School would serve students coming out of Maxine Smith Middle School, which was created last year because the former Fairview Middle School was at risk of state intervention due to chronically low test scores. East High School pulls students from neighborhoods of Binghampton and north Memphis and has seen a 40 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years. Test scores have suffered as well.

Board members gave Hopson the green light to engage the community over the next several months but didn’t indicate whether they are supportive of his proposals.

“This should be a progressive discussion that needs to happen with administrators, schools, communities, and we need to find out if there’s even a need for something like this,” said board member Shante Avant.

Shelby County Schools, created in a 2015 merger of the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, has lost thousands of students in recent years due to demographic shifts, the conversion of dozens of charter schools, and the creation of six suburban municipal school districts. With the enrollment decline, the consolidated district has lost funding, prompting the board to close 17 schools since 2013 and to reorganize others.

Ken Welch, an alumnus of East High School, said later he was open to a reorganization that could restore his alma mater to its glory days.

“I think any involved alumnus of East High has been worried about East’s academic performance for many years, and that the enrollment has dropped to less than 600 just adds to the concern,” said Welch, who graduated from the school in 1968. “Many years ago, East was not only one of the top academic schools in the city, but in the entire region. I think all the alumni would really love to see it restored to that level, not only to support our pride in the school but for the benefit of the students of East and of the community as a whole.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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