Humes Middle School, it is safe to say, is the only school in America with an Elvis Room. It is on the first floor of the three-story building in a poor neighborhood on the north side of downtown. There are photographs of Elvis Aron Presley and the Humes High Class of 1953, Elvis buttons, copies of his diploma, the graduation program, yearbook, and some cheesy wall hangings and posters. In one corner, there is an old metal locker with a pair of retro football hip pads, shoulder pads, and shoes. In fact, Elvis played sandlot football but was not on the varsity team, and his yearbook entry says his main extracurricular activity was shop.
No matter. When legend clashes with fact, go with the legend.
Elvis became famous in 1956. He died in 1977. But Memphis City Schools hopes some Elvis luster will help save Humes Middle School and give it a new life. The Transition Planning Commission recommended closing 21 schools, and at a glance Humes looks like a prime candidate. It was built in 1925 for grades 7-12, with a capacity of 1,500 students. Many Humes families, including the Presleys, lived in nearby housing projects and worked at factories, now closed, in North Memphis. By 2002, its enrollment had shrunk to 900, and this year it has about 190 students who share the building with a charter school. The building needs at least $9 million in repairs, according to MCS.
"It is as beautiful a middle-school structure as there is anywhere," said Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash at a community meeting at Humes this week, where about a dozen parents, students, and staff met in the cafeteria. Joining them were supporters who hope to "repurpose" Humes as an all-optional school focused on arts and music and, in Cash's words, "recapture market share."
Nostalgia aside, market share is a problem for several schools in North Memphis. Northside High School is at 24 percent capacity, Frayser High School at 54 percent, and Manassas High School — built seven years ago at a cost of some $30 million — is at 78 percent. Humes is a feeder school that was supposed to help fill Manassas, but Cash said "that hasn't happened as fast or as quickly as city planners and maybe some business investors hoped it would."
So while the Unified School Board contemplates school closings, MCS is scrambling to save Humes by "closing" it and immediately reopening it with a new mission. The cause has enlisted some standout music teachers from other Memphis schools as well as artists, architects, and people in the music business from Ardent, Delta Arts, Arts Memphis, Memphis College of Art, and churches. Ken Greene, a music teacher who worked for eight years at Ridgeway Middle School, is now at Humes and spoke at the meeting. He described a vision of studios in the school and a curriculum based on the arts that goes against the grain of test-oriented instruction in reading, writing, and math.
Regional superintendent Catherine Battle, a former principal at Snowden Elementary and Middle School in Midtown, said potential community partners "are coming out of the woodwork." Humes would not have athletics. It would be open to any child in the unified system. Admission would require a minimum score on the TCAP exam. The school would be all-optional, unlike arts and music-oriented optional schools within schools at Overton High School and Colonial Middle School. Some current employees would stay. The school would need custodians and cafeteria workers. Federal grants might pay for some improvements.
It was a blue-sky scenario in a blue-sky presentation. A "Hail Elvis" version of football's last-minute "Hail Mary." The school board, if it is in a mood to make them when it meets next year, will have some hard choices. It is one thing to volunteer at a school, another thing to staff it seven hours a day for 180 days a year. The projected student-teacher ratio at the new Humes would be as low as 12-to-1 and even 8-to-1 at a time when crowded high schools such as White Station and Germantown are cramming 35 or more students into science classes and labs.
As for Elvis, his name is not always magic, as Beale Street, the Pyramid, and Whitehaven have learned. If Humes is "repurposed" then, the Elvis Room will be a casualty. Plans call for moving it to a separate building across the street.