School's Out

Too few students are going to too many schools.

Michelle Rhee is a cautionary tale these days for Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash as he embarks on his most controversial idea: closing about 50 schools.

Rhee, former superintendent of the Washington, D.C., school district, is a reminder of how quickly things can turn sour for a reform-minded superintendent. It's also a reminder of why the average tenure for an urban district superintendent is about three years.

Rhee went from the cover of Time magazine to unemployed after her boss (former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty) lost reelection, turning loose a battalion of angry opponents who pounced on her for a list of grievances, including closing half as many schools as Cash wants to close.

Since taking over as superintendent of Memphis City Schools in 2008, Cash has shown underdeveloped public relations skills that have escalated some controversies, from the debate about a district police force to salaries for members of the "Miami Mafia" to his own personnel evaluation.

His challenging reform agenda — bolstered by Gates Foundation and Race to the Top money — features the stars of school innovation: Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, and New Leaders for New Schools.

No government service is more prone to the solution du jour than education, and for now, at least, it's about developing better teachers who are held accountable for their students' achievement. Lost in much of the debate is the fact that Memphis City Schools teachers are largely trying to educate moving targets. About 15 percent of students in every grade move during the school year, peaking with 26 percent of ninth-graders moving.

Remarkably, some of the schools with capacities of about 50 percent are within walking distance of another school operating at half capacity, opening up the option for consolidation.

Transient students are a complicating issue for Memphis City Schools, and as they reach high school, transience is often a precursor for dropping out. It's not to say that teacher effectiveness isn't the right target, but Memphians should be prepared for the long haul.

Cash also has the right target when he said as many as 50 schools should be closed. Like most public facilities — from police stations to community centers to libraries — schools are located for a Memphis that no longer exists. Most of the 190 schools are within the borders of 1970 Memphis, which today has 30 percent fewer people than it did then. As a result, facilities are in neighborhoods with much lower densities and populations.

That's why when Superintendent Cash looks at a map of Memphis, he sees dozens of schools operating at half capacity. There are 21 elementary schools with less than 75 percent capacity, and six of them have less than 50 percent capacity. There are about 11 middle schools with capacities of less than 75 percent and four with less than 40 percent. Finally, there are about five high schools with less than 75 percent capacity, with two less than 50 percent.

Remarkably, some of the schools with capacities of about 50 percent are within walking distance of another school operating at half capacity, opening up the option for consolidation.

Just as disturbing to Cash as the costs for operating public schools at half capacity is that many of these schools are also in the worst physical condition. Four years ago, Memphis City Schools' Five-Year Facilities Master Plan determined the "Facility Condition Index" for every elementary, middle, and high school. The Index is a widely used, standardized way to determine the relative quality of a group of buildings.

Looking at the results, it was not lost on Cash that students performing the worst on state tests often have the lethal combination of ineffective teachers, low school capacity, and poor facility condition. As Cash has rightly said, a young person's future should not be determined by an accident of birth.

He does little to hide his emotions when he talks about the way that too many students' options for their lives are limited by a simple reality: The kids who are at the most at-risk and need our best teachers and our best efforts are the ones in the worst schools with the worst teachers.

All of this seems a mandate for change for Cash. And yet, parents, alumni, and students are organizing at Hamilton High School to fight for its survival. Alumni of Booker T. Washington, upset about the possible impact on their school with the closing of Cleaborn Homes for its federally funded facelift, are also mounting a fight.

Other Memphis superintendents knew that the schools should be closed, but after raising a trial balloon, they bailed quickly in the face of neighborhood pushback. Maybe, just maybe, in this case, Cash's lack of interest in PR may prove pivotal in his staying the course.

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