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Getting neighborhoods to close schools may be a tough sell

December 24, 2018

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Years ago, the noises from across the street made Barbara Nesbit smile.

“Those principals would be out there, at the end of the day, with that bullhorn, (dismissing students),” said Nesbit, who runs the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, which sits across the street from the now-defunct Vance Middle School.

“I’d hear Mr. Pointer say, ‘OK, y’all go.’ Mr. Johnson would say, ’OK children, let’s go across the street . . . cross at the light. Let’s go home.”

But since low enrollment and low achievement led to the school being closed in 2014, the sounds that Nesbit hears no longer make her smile.

They make her cringe.

“You don’t hear any noise over there unless you hear a bang, or a crack, or a window being broken,” Nesbit said.

“That’s the only sound you hear over there.”

Those noises should resonate as cautionary sounds for the Shelby County School Board as it considers a proposal from outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to close 28 schools plagued with low enrollments and maintenance problems — schools where classrooms are too cold for students to concentrate.

Hopson’s idea rightly focuses on curbing inefficiencies and bolstering learning for students who now are trapped in schools that will be too expensive to modernize.

But it’s still important to understand that regardless of problems, schools remain a part of a community’s identity and social capital.

Leaving them vacant or demolishing them with no plans for the gaping hole they will leave feeds into the community deterioration that many of the people who live near those schools, like Vance, must contend with.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said his administration will look at ways to reuse vacant school buildings such as Vance. That’s welcome news, especially since a proposal by the Rev. Kenneth Whalum to transform the school into a center to serve impoverished people in that area was rejected by the board in 2016.

Recently, Memphis Inner City Rugby and another nonprofit, Advance Memphis, reached an agreement with the school board and city to revamp Vance’s football field for rugby matches.

Nonetheless, Nesbit, whose organization feeds and tutors more than 100 youths in the neighborhood, believes the building could use more attention.

“We had a block fundraiser for this center,” Nesbit said. “The guys from the Corvette Club of Memphis, they sponsored us, and when they got over here they had to clean the grounds up, they had to cut the bushes and they had to clear the walkway because the maintenance people, they just cut the grass and let it go.

“You had bushes covering windows and doors, and trespassers . . . the back door there was open, and there’s copper in there and there’s equipment in there.”

But vandals aren’t a concern for parents like Andrea McMillan, whose son is an eighth-grader at Oakhaven Middle School. Inconvenience and loss of legacy are.

Oakhaven High, which is in an area where 35 to 22 percent of residents live below poverty level, is one of the schools being recommended for closure.

“I just think that they don’t need to close it, because the closest school is five miles both ways, east and west,” said McMillan, who attended Oakhaven in the ninth and 10th grades. “I stay on Bishop Bridge (the road adjacent to the school), and it’s like three minutes away. So, I wouldn’t like that at all.

“They’ll have to either go to Sheffield or Whitehaven, and Whitehaven is already overcrowded.”

For Oakhaven alumnus Fatima Bah, whose three children attend Oakhaven Elementary, closing the school means her children won’t have the chance to attend their mother’s high school.

“I just can’t imagine it being closed,” Bah said. “It’s a good school to me, honestly. I was able to get a scholarship. . . .

“And I live right down the street.”

Oakhaven High buddies Keelan Carson, 16, Mario Davis, 15, and Joshua Aviles, 14, said they love their school, but if it closes, they’ll work to wind up at the same school.

“If they knock it down, I’m picking you up, you up and my girl up, and we’re all going to Whitehaven,” Mario told his friends as they laughed.

The issue here, though, likely won’t be whether the students will adapt to a new school, but how their neighborhoods will adjust if their high schools — schools that are, in many cases, the last institutions of stability and social capital — are closed.

On top of that, another issue is whether the school board can overcome the distrust and betrayal first sown by Memphis City Schools for allowing those schools to deteriorate, and later, for allowing a building like Vance to stagnate.

The rationale for closing many of those schools is sound. But any conversations about closing those schools should include plans on how to use those shuttered buildings. Converting them into, say, learning centers, or art centers, or anything that gives those communities a sense of purpose and not feelings of emptiness, could be a starting point.

A starting point — so those buildings can fill communities with sounds of progress instead of neglect.

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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