At its latest meeting, the Jackson Public School Board of Trustees was presented with a proposal from Superintendent Erick Greene to close 16 of its schools. The proposal surprised the board, shocked the public, and sparked immediate criticism. The writer’s conversations with many Jackson citizens and residents over the past week shows that the move does not sit well with what may be the vast majority of this population.
If the proposal is approved, 13 elementary schools – Barack Obama, Green, Oak Forest, Sykes, Shirley, Clausell, Key, Dawson, G.N. Smith, Wells APAC, Lake, Raines, and Lester – would be closed or merged come the next academic year. Two middle schools – Chastain and Whitten – would not re-open. At the high school level, Wingfield would not re-open. The reasons given for what seemed like a drastic measure were a decline in enrollment, serious infrastructure problems, and staffing difficulties, particularly the hiring of certified teachers.
The administration’s proposal outlined the feeder patterns for the six high schools that would remain open. In the case of Forest Hill High School, the schools would include Cardozo Middle School, a portion of Peeples Middle School, Bates Elementary School, Marshall Elementary School, Timberlawn Elementary School, and Van Winkle Elementary School. The Jim Hill High School feeder pattern would include North West Jackson Middle School and portions of Blackburn and Peeples Middle Schools as well as Isable Elementary and Wilkins Elementary School. Provine High School’s students would come from Blackburn Middle School and from Pecan Park and Johns Hopkins Elementary Schools. The Lanier feeder pattern would encompass what had been Brinkley Middle School and a portion of Powell Middle School, along with Johnson Elementary School, Walton Elementary School, and Galloway Elementary School. Students who attend Murrah High School would come from Bailey APAC Middle School, Boyd Elementary School, Casey Elementary School, McLeod Elementary School, McWillie Elementary School, and Spann Elementary School. In the case of Callaway High School, the schools would include Kirksey Middle School, a portion of Powell Middle School, and North Jackson Elementary School.
The Jackson Public School District administrators have scheduled a series of public hearings on the school closure issue. The first was held on Monday at Forest Hill High School. Others will follow in other parts of the state. An abundance of questions and comments, however, have already emerged. The comments are overwhelmingly critical and the questions increasingly reflect skepticism of the plan.
Since the writer has served on the JPS Board of Trustees, there has been a decline in the district’s student population from 32,400 to 19,400, a 40% decrease. That may be a good beginning point of discussion since an enrollment decline is one of the reasons given for the proposal to close 16 schools. What some citizens recall is that more than a half dozen schools had been closed prior to the current closure proposal. To now close 13 more elementary schools, over 43% of those remaining, along with two middle schools and one high school, seems like overkill.
The decision to close 16, or 35% of the schools, will unlikely increase the current student to teacher ratio. This is no trivial matter in terms of its effect on student achievement. At the elementary level, the matter can be exacerbated since we are talking about closing nearly half of the schools and since children at that level often need much more assistance from the teacher. The merger/closure strategy is counterintuitive to achieving more ideal student to teacher ratios in the schools. It could help drive down student achievement across the district.
Many residents also are concerned that all of these vacant buildings will help to create problems of crime, vagrancy, blight, and deterioration. Several individuals and groups have made suggestions regarding the use of the vacant buildings, but have gotten no affirmative response. As long as that remains the case, adding more empty buildings will only worsen the problem in many parts of the city.
Still a third concern that some parents and other citizens have voiced is the impact of closing seven very successfully performing schools. Clausell Elementary, Green Elementary, Key Elementary, Lake Elementary, Obama Elementary, Shirley Elementary, and Wells APAC Elementary were all A-rated in the state’s latest assessment. Dispersing these students may very well result in lower ratings the next time around since there are apparent spirits of sustained teamwork and/or developed environments that helped achieve those ratings. It is a concern that merits study and consideration rather than a hasty decision that may save a few dollars.
Moving beyond the enrollment decline reported by Superintendent Greene, there was the rationale of serious infrastructure problems leading the decision. On the one hand, it is not clear how many of the schools proposed for closure have serious infrastructure problems. What is the estimated cost to repair or renovate? Is it possible to secure funds from public and/or private sources to address these problems? Has the state been approached for the assistance? On the other hand, many citizens recall that there were successful bond issues passed by the citizens of Jackson in 2006 and again in 2018. Were the current infrastructure problems overlooked in those years? Were those bonds too small to have included the current problems in them? Have these problems developed since the bond issues passed? Many citizens demand open, honest, and comprehensive answers to such questions.
Many question the wisdom of closing so many schools rather than addressing the infrastructure needs. This is especially the case when they consider the negative consequences of the closures. It is especially the case when other options can be explored. And it behooves the district to pay attention to solutions before it surrenders its property. That property may very well be needed in the future.
A third area which JPS Superintendent Greene underscored as a reason for the proposed school closures was staffing shortages. The latest figures show that 15% of JPS teachers are not certified in the areas in which they teach. Furthermore, veteran teachers are retiring or otherwise leaving the classroom faster than they can be replaced. Rather than solving the problem of the staffing shortage, however, closing the schools only guarantees that there will be more children in each classroom. As in the case of the need for more money for infrastructure needs, the solution to the staffing shortage is also more money. There has to be more pressure on the legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), more lobbying to get special appropriations from the state, and more grants from the federal government and private sources. Teachers are already not being paid as the professionals that they are. They are already being overworked in many instances. Increasing the number of students with whose education they are charged makes the condition worse, likely driving even more of the teachers out of the classroom, out of the district, and out of the profession.
If and when there is a dramatic rise in the salaries which teachers receive, there will be more people attracted to the field and more people remaining in the field. The recent teacher pay raise was sorely needed, but was inadequate and leaves JPS teachers far behind the national average and even behind the salaries of teachers in nearby states.
At this point, it is not clear if or how JPS is allied with the professional teachers’ unions, the local teachers’ colleges, or state and federal legislators. Such alliances could be of tremendous benefit in all of the areas plaguing the district. In addition to such alliances, some citizens are of the opinion that it may take the filing of lawsuits to save JPS and other public schools from further decline and disappearance. Apparently, other creative ideas can, should, and will be forthcoming on this matter of such grave importance.
More than a few citizens have warned that JPS appears to be headed toward a situation similar to the one New Orleans is faced with wherein charter schools have largely supplanted the public schools. It is clear that between families moving their children to Hinds County Public Schools, Rankin County Public Schools, and Madison County Public Schools, which decreases JPS enrollment, and the local charter schools siphoning-off money and students, JPS is in dire straits and is losing out in its bid to thrive or survive.
It has been announced that a decision by the board of trustees on the merger/closure proposal will be made at its December 5th meeting. The members of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Public School District are Dr. Edward Sivak from Ward One, Letitia Johnson from Ward Two, Frank Figgers from Ward Three, Barbara Hilliard from Ward Four, Dr. Jeanne Middleton Hairston from Ward Five, Cynthia Thompson from Ward Six, and Mitch McGuffey from Ward Seven. It is this group, along with Superintendent Erick Greene, who have to be convinced one way or the other on the merger/closure proposal being discussed this Fall.