JPS makes changes reflecting opportunities and challenges

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The Jackson Public School District administration is set to make several major changes beginning this spring when the students and teachers leave the buildings. The changes will involve 12 schools and hundreds of students. They will involve schools and students at all three levels – elementary, middle, and high school. They are projected to be on-going through the entire 2023-24 school year.

The school district has been promised federal money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to be used to deal with infrastructure needs. The amount of money involved is more than $100 million. Utilizing a part of the funds will be prioritized infrastructure needs at Pecan Park Elementary School, Powell Middle School, and Jim Hill High School. Those particular projects, according to district officials, were identified during the last bond referendum but there were insufficient funds to undertake them. They were, therefore, prioritized for this round of repairs and renovations.

Pecan Park Elementary School is slated to receive approximately $9 million for its project. Powell Middle School is to receive $2.5 million for repairs and renovations. Jim Hill will receive $7 million. Work on the projects is scheduled to start immediately and continue across the year because the funds must be expended by the end of the 2023-2024 school year.

Presently, the funds are with the state department of education, which must approve the district’s plan for the projects. Although the federal legislation appropriating the money was passed early in the Biden administration, it had to make its way through the local bureaucracy and get approved by the state of Mississippi, most of whose congressional delegation voted against the bill. This means that the district must finance the projects from its own budget and get reimbursed by the state once the work had been completed.

Most of the work will involve the heating, ventilating, and cooling systems (HVAC), which are very old or non-existent. Similar work was done at several schools with funds from the previous bond money.

As work is being done at Pecan Park Elementary School, its kindergartners and first and second graders will be moved to Lake Elementary School. Pecan Park’s third, fourth, and fifth graders will move to Johnson Elementary School. The moves will involve teachers, staff, and students. Transportation is being worked out since there will be an increased need for transportation.

As work is being done at Powell Middle School, the Powell students will move to the Brinkley Middle School facility. Brinkley’s sixth graders will remain at the Brinkley facility, but its seventh and eighth graders will permanently move to Lanier High School. Again, the move will involve teachers, staff, and students. Transportation routes are being worked out as well as the matter of security. 

Meanwhile, City Councilman Kenneth Stokes has advised that the matter of security needs special attention since this move will involve adolescents being moved into different neighborhoods which may increase gang violence. Several parents have expressed similar concerns.

The move of Brinkley’s seventh and eighth graders to Lanier will make Lanier the only junior-senior high school in the district since Bailey Junior-Senior High School was established in the 1980s. This change is designed to boost Lanier’s enrollment. It also appears to be a part of the effort to transform Lanier into a “community school.” It appears this concept is being separately worked on and extra grant funds are being pursued for this initiative. 

At the same time, concerns have been expressed about the idea of housing younger adolescents, aged 12 and 13, in the same facility as older adolescents aged 17, 18, and 19. The concerns center around sex and safety. School officials indicate that sufficient precautions are being built-in, including middle school uniforms and alert security officials. 

As the plans unfold, questions are also being raised regarding middle school athletic programs. Will the seventh and eighth graders at Lanier be able to play with the varsity teams? If only the sixth graders of Brinkley – Powell play as middle schoolers, will they not be handicapped compared to the other middle school teams? Will it be possible for the seventh and eighth graders at Lanier to play along with the sixth graders of Brinkley – Powell as a middle school team? 

It should be noted that once the construction work at Powell is completed and the students have exited the Brinkley facility, the building may be closed or may house the Re-Engaging in Education for All to Progress program (REAP). That transitional program is currently being housed at French Elementary School. 

While one member of the administrative staff suggested that the REAP program may move to the Brinkley building, others have not been that affirmative. Consequently, there is quite a bit of discussion surrounding the idea of closing Brinkley and the subsequent loss of Brinkley’s history. One proposal put forward that may gain some traction is the proposal to change the name of the current Powell building to Brinkley-Powell Middle School regardless of the fate of the Brinkley building.

As work is being done at Jim Hill High School, its students will utilize Jim Hill’s ninth-grade academy building and the Isable Elementary School building. The kindergartners and first and second graders from Isable will move to Lester Elementary School and the third through fifth graders will move to Marshall Elementary School. The teachers and staff will also move. Transportation routes are to be worked out.

Aside from the construction projects mentioned, Baker Elementary School will be closed at the end of this school year. Its students, teachers, and staff will consolidate with the Shirley Elementary School students, teachers, and staff. Transportation routes will be developed. The building which houses Baker Elementary School will remain vacant, at least for the time being. This has caused quite a stir, especially by people in the neighborhood who fear vandalism and misuse of the building by drifters. 

The closing of Baker Elementary, and possibly Brinkley, points to a challenge which the district is facing and which increases each year. That challenge is declining enrollment. 

Jackson Public Schools’ enrollment is now near 20,000. That is down from more than 32,500 just fifteen years ago. With the declining enrollment comes reduced allocations from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). This in turn leads to the closing of schools and the exodus of educators seeking offering better compensation packages.

As upper and middle-income people migrate from Jackson to other areas, the city of Jackson and the Jackson Public School District decline. The Jackson Public School District has long since been surpassed by the DeSoto County School District and now it appears by the Rankin County School District as well. Local charter schools are further weakening the district by siphoning off money that could otherwise be used to support the Jackson Public School District, its facilities, teachers, and students. These challenges are indeed major.

The Jackson Public School District is fortunate to be able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The school district, along with its supporters, must nevertheless remain cognizant of and rise to successfully meet the critical challenges that continue to surface. 

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JPS makes changes reflecting opportunities and challenges

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 8, 2023