Update on Jan. 10, 2019: This story has been updated to include the stipend amount for staff, more specific enrollment numbers, and a breakdown of renovation costs.
Walking around the building she once thought was a lost cause for the first time in four months, Kirby High School senior Princess Jones was impressed.
A rat invasion in the fall prompted Memphis school leaders to spend more than $3 million on renovations, and community members got their first look Friday at the improvements, which included a host of upgrades.
“Y’all, look at my chair!” Jones exclaimed inside her former English classroom as she ran to the corner desk she used to sit in. Instead of individual desks, there are now new tables made to fit together in groups.
Other improvements included a student lounge, five new computer labs, new laptops for teachers, a few cameras that will allow teachers to livestream and record lessons, new lighting, and paint.
The hallways were adorned with balloons in the school colors of white and blue Friday afternoon, and nearly every Shelby County Schools representative sported a T-shirt with the school’s rallying cry that sought to boost morale during a crisis that displaced about 800 students: “Kirby Strong.”
The welcome ceremony came three days before students will return to the Memphis high school after being scattered to three nearby locations while district staff and contractors worked to clear the building of pests and upgrade the school beyond the immediate needs. About $750,000, or 22 percent, of the $3.3 million the district spent on renovations was directly prompted by the rats.
“We wanted to ensure that when the students and the teachers came back to Kirby High School that we were giving them something to look forward to… to a certain extent to make up for the difficult time they went through,” said Natalia Powers, the district’s chief of communications.
Kevin Woods, the school board member whose region includes Kirby High, said he was happy with the result.
“The objective all along was that the Kirby family would return to a school better than they left,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”
The district demolished the adjacent greenhouse that officials say was the main rat attraction. When staff disturbed an old compost pile during some scheduled maintenance, about 80 rats fled into the building, officials said at the time. Since then, workers have removed rats that died behind the school walls and ceilings that had stunk up the hallways, and they sealed any crevices the rodents might be able to slip through. Crews stopped work for several days after an inspection to see if any rats would resurface once work quieted down.
To prevent rodents from entering other Memphis schools, Powers said the district hired six maintenance staff members devoted to pest control and bolstered contracts with existing businesses to be more proactive. The district did provide the total cost of those additions.
Students missed nine days of school altogether after the problem was discovered, partially resolved, and then resurfaced. Kirby High is one of 166 schools across the state that scored the lowest on state tests, so making up for lost instructional time was especially urgent. Shelby County Schools sought special consideration from the state to accommodate for the upheaval, but were denied, district officials said.
Principal Steevon Hunter said increasing opportunities for academic support after school, Saturday school, and a tutoring program with University of Memphis helped students progress while away from their normal building.
“We really tried to keep it as normal as possible,” Hunter told reporters Friday.
Hunter said the school retained all of its teachers — in part thanks to $1,000 stipend for all employees. Still, the move took a toll on staff. Sheretha Wilkins, a special education teacher who has been at Kirby High for 10 years, characterized the experience in one word: tiring.
“You never knew moving would take so much out of you,” she said. “I’m just happy to be home.”
Before relocating, students received assignments online through district-issued laptops. As a result, students will keep those computers, making the high school one of few in the district with a laptop for every student to use at home.
Student enrollment initially dipped when students and teachers relocated to nearby schools, but as the situation stabilized, most came back, Hunter said. He’s expecting about 800 students Monday — about 100 fewer students compared to the beginning of the school year.
As Hunter and Powers went through the building Friday afternoon, Powers noted the new technology in the Kirby High classrooms is a foretaste of what new schools will look like in the district. Shelby County Schools is in the process of building two new schools and under a recent proposal could build as many as 10 others to consolidate 28 aging buildings.
“This is going to be the new way schools will look like,” Powers said. “This is the new norm.”
Below is a video from Shelby County Schools.