In late 2005, I tromped out to a mushy field decorated with blue and gold balloons for the groundbreaking of the new Manassas High School.
Construction was questionable, even at the time. Memphis City Schools (MCS) had approved $40 million to rebuild Manassas and Douglass High School, two historic schools in North Memphis.
The year before, still housed in the 1936 building, Manassas had 358 students enrolled, and the school being built was going to be able to accommodate 800.
But the school had a past as the city's first accredited four-year high school for African Americans, as well as dedicated, and notable, alumni such as Isaac Hayes and former school board commissioner Sara Lewis.
"We're bringing the old with the new, so it won't feel like a brand-new building," then Superintendent Carol Johnson said at the time. "It will feel like coming home."
Now, the history lesson has become a math problem. And a somewhat complex one, at that. The administration is looking at what it's calling "right-sizing" the district and closing the quarter of its schools that are underutilized.
"We want to be good stewards of our public dollars," says Hitesh Haria, deputy superintendent of business operations at MCS. "We want to utilize the resources we have and focus them on priorities as we move forward and get student achievement where we want it."
The district plans to meet with business leaders, city officials, and local nonprofits early next month to determine the criteria for the closures. MCS officials cannot reiterate enough that they have not yet compiled a list of possible school closures.
"We want the community to help us," Haria says. "At the end of the day, we're trying to educate kids. We want what's in their best interest."
Haria suggests they'll look at factors other than enrollment — academic performance, utilization of the buildings, among others — but there are certain efficiencies of scale with buildings at capacity.
"If we lose students that go to a school, we still have to heat and cool the entire building," Haria says. "There are fixed costs."
If they weren't virtually brand-new, Manassas and Douglass would seem to be good candidates for closure. Data from the 2009 Tennessee state report card puts Manassas' enrollment at 569.
(In a somewhat telling, though unsurprising, anecdote, district staff were unable to pull current high school enrollment and capacity numbers by press time.)
Northside High is less than two miles from Manassas and has 672 students. Douglass High, which reopened in 2008, is five miles from Manassas and four miles from Northside. It has 325 students. All told, there are only 1,500 students between the three schools.
The average high school in the system has a capacity around 1,000, though ones in the eastern part of the city accommodate closer to 1,500 students.
"There's been a geographical shift to where people live," Haria says. "Unfortunately, we can't just lift the buildings and move them."
Just using high schools as an indicator of the student population, it seems many of the district's schools in the urban core and western parts of the city, such as Booker T. Washington or Westwood, are ripe for closure.
Booker T. Washington, located on South Lauderdale, has around 600 students and a capacity of 800. Cleaborn Homes is literally across the street from the school, but when it comes in December to make way for a new Hope VI development, how many students will be left at the high school?
Westwood, the district's southwest-most high school, has only 434 students.
Overall, the district can serve at least 31,000 high school students, but the total number of students currently attending classes is closer to 28,300. Taking geography out of the equation, that gap is large enough to close two of the medium-sized schools — say, a Melrose and an East — or several smaller ones.
But closing schools, even ones vastly underutilized, is a complicated business. Closing a school is seen as cutting the heart out of the community, and residents — even ones who themselves have left the community — will turn out in droves to make sure it doesn't happen.
While the district says it will probably look at academic performance as well as enrollment numbers, the truth is that those factors are linked.
According to the state report card, Manassas has a graduation rate of 55 percent. Booker T. Washington has a 60 percent graduation rate. Westwood also has a 60 percent graduation rate.
It's not surprising that schools with high graduation rates have higher enrollments. Central, by definition a school in the urban core, has more students enrolled than it was built for and a graduation rate of 84 percent. (The overall graduation rate systemwide was 62 percent in 2009.)
Whitehaven is located in the south central part of the city and has 2,000 students and a graduation rate of 81 percent.
Community meetings will begin in early November and the board will make a final decision next February.
"We implore the community to come out and give us feedback," Haria says. "This is something that impacts an entire community. These are really sensitive issues. We don't take that lightly."
To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff