When Elvis Presley graduated from L.C. Humes High School in 1953 during the days of segregated schools, the stately red brick building was operated by the city district to serve white students in a growing area of north Memphis.
The school still operates today and is known as Humes Preparatory Academy Middle, a mostly black, state-run charter school serving a community with a shrinking population of school-age children.
This week, leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement School District are expected to announce whether the historic school will remain open.
The fate of Humes has been uncertain since last fall, when leaders of Gestalt Community Schools announced plans to pull out of its charter management role due to low enrollment. The state-run school turnaround district, which made Humes one of its first schools in 2012, invited other eligible charter networks to apply to step in. But only one, Memphis-based Frayser Community Schools, threw its hat in the ring.
Among Frayser’s plans for Humes: a renewed focus on music.
“It’s inspiring to know that we will be walking in the footsteps of Elvis Presley if we are able to start this program,” said Derrick Lewis, fine arts chairman for MLK College Preparatory High School, Frayser’s only current school, also in Memphis.
“We plan to establish a reputable music program at Humes within the next three to five years,” he said, listing marching band, choir, jazz band and a glee club among the eventual offerings.
The sole application doesn’t guarantee that Frayser will be chosen to succeed Gestalt, however. ASD leaders have been reviewing operator’s plan, and doing some number crunching, to see if per-pupil funding from the community’s shrinking pool of students can provide the kinds of supports needed for ASD schools to accomplish their mission.
The state-run district, created in 2010 to catapult struggling schools to excellence, already plans to let at least one of its 31 Memphis schools die because of low enrollment. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, Gestalt’s other ASD school in North Memphis, will close at the end of this school year.
But the outlook at Humes is somewhat brighter. The middle school has more than 300 students and is operating at 69 percent of capacity, compared to 33 percent for Klondike.
Humes High School dates to 1925, and it’s hard for its current middle school students to comprehend its closure.
“It’s a great, inspiring school. It tries to teach to all kids who have hard lives,” eighth-grader Richard Johnson said last Thursday as he left the school.
“We’ve got good teachers,” added sixth-grader Taborian Richmond.
If Frayser Community Schools gets the nod, it’s uncertain how many of those Gestalt-hired teachers would return. CEO Bobby White says that Humes principal John Crutchfield would be retained, but teachers would have to reapply.
While decisions on whether to shutter schools are new for the ASD, they’ve been increasingly common for local district leaders in Memphis. At least 20 local schools have been closed since 2012 due to a combination of low enrollment, aging buildings and low performance. And Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson recently proposed closing seven more.
Whatever the decision about Humes, the school building on North Manassas Avenue will remain. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its connection to Presley, whose performance in the school talent show whetted his appetite to become an entertainer. A historical plaque has stood in the schoolyard since 2013 to trumpet the school’s history and famous alumnus.
As with Klondike’s campus, the Humes property would return to the possession of Shelby County Schools if the ASD decides to walk away, ASD officials said.
Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.