Memphis is not only home to Tennessee’s largest public school district. It’s also a national hub for school improvement efforts supported by local, state, federal and philanthropic initiatives. Here are some of the city’s biggest education storylines for 2016:
Shelby County Schools began to ‘right-size’ its footprint by systematically closing and consolidating schools.
Shelby County Schools had 22,000 empty seats in aging school buildings this year, meaning the limited resources of the cash-strapped school system were spread thin. While Memphis leaders have closed schools annually in recent years, 2016 saw the launch of the first systematic process for addressing the district’s under-enrollment challenges. The action was spurred by a comprehensive footprint analysis ordered by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 to guide school closures for the next five years. Hopson’s goal is to align the numbers of students and seats, while also boosting academic and programmatic quality. He estimates the district will need to close up to 18 schools. In his first round of recommendations, Hopson is seeking to consolidate five schools into three new buildings and close two more outright. The final vote on that proposal is scheduled for early next year.
The state-run Achievement School District took a one-year pause in school takeovers, while its lineup of charter networks began to change.
Citing the transition to Tennessee’s new TNReady test, ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a “hold harmless” year, freezing the school turnaround district at 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. The pause allowed the ASD to put more focus on supports for its portfolio of charter networks, which have struggled with operational issues ranging from facilities to enrollment. But ongoing efforts to bolster enrollment were not enough for two charter operators. Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools in North Memphis, leaving the future of those schools uncertain. Then this week, the Memphis board for KIPP voted to exit and close one of its four ASD schools. With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. But that expansion may be slowed under a new education plan proposed by the State Department of Education.
Enrollment wars heated up.
Shelby County Schools’ enrollment has dropped drastically since the state-run district began its annual expansion in 2012, and six suburban municipalities broke off to form their own school systems in 2014. After years of watching the drain of students — and the funding they bring — Shelby County school leaders finally
had enough. This spring, the district went on the offense and rezoned parts of schools slated to shift to the ASD. Leaders also actively sought to retain students through tactics that ASD officials said amounted to misinformation and withholding of enrollment information.
But collaboration became an emerging priority for Shelby County Schools and its growing charter sector.
Memphis has more charter schools than any city in Tennessee, and charter leaders long have griped that Shelby County Schools could do more to support operators of charters authorized by the local school board. In January, both groups committed to working through turf battles. The resulting committee has begun to shape policy around funding, facilities and accountability. But that work didn’t come soon enough. The State Board of Education rapped Shelby County Schools for its lack of process after the school board’s hastened revocation of three charters this spring led to appeals — the first of their kind in Tennessee.
The local district managed to close its funding gap — for now.
With enrollment and funding down and the last of a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drying up, Shelby County Schools started out the year facing an $86 million deficit. Leaders managed to close that gap little by little, culminating with a significant $22 million boost from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners only days before the new fiscal year. The extra money came during an especially high-stakes year and helped the district give its teachers a 3 percent raise. For next year, district leaders are moving up their annual budget timeline to address deficits sooner and get more community input. The public’s first look at a proposed budget is expected in January.