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Fresh start, but no easy path for school that narrowly avoided closing

Northside's new football coach gets players started on a drill.
Northside's new football coach gets players started on a drill.
J. Zubrzycki

On a recent afternoon, 20 members of Northside High School’s football team tossed a ball around a field preparing for practice.

A group of girls, relaxed in summer clothes, stood on the other side of a chain link fence, chatting about their classmates and occasionally bursting into laughter. It was less than a week until school began, and less than a month before the team’s first game.

This football team and the school it represents almost did not exist this year. Northside High School was one of 13 schools Shelby County Schools considered closing. But after fervent protests and a hundred-page pitch from alumni to save the school, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced at the last minute that the school would remain open.

The school was “fresh started,” which meant that all-new teachers (with one exception) and leaders were hired. The fresh start mirrors other closely-watched turnaround efforts in the city, such as the Innovation Zone and Achievement School District, both of which attempt to improve low-performing schools by bringing in new staff and programs. Alumni, teachers, students and the school’s new principal, Vinson Thompson, say the school can once again become a community and academic hub.

But the long-term future of this school, and others in struggling Memphis neighborhoods, remains unclear. Despite the fresh start, the fundamental challenges—low enrollment and declining population, years of low academic performance, a large number of students living in poverty—remain. If more students do not choose to attend the school, it may be up for closure again or find itself co-located with a charter school; if its academic performance places it in the bottom 5 percent in the state, it will be eligible to be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District or added to the district’s Innovation Zone.

At a community event hosted by Northside alumni in late July, Shelby County board member Teresa Jones told alumni and parents the school still needs to enroll more students to survive. “There are very real reasons it was on the list,” Jones said.

In 2012-13, the graduation rate at Northside hovered around 60 percent and its average composite ACT score around 14 (the national average is 20.9, and a score of 21 out of 36 is considered “college ready”). Fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students scored proficient in math and reading on state’s test. Ninety-three percent of students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. (The school was not ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state in 2012.)

The school building, originally designed to hold more than 1,000 students, held fewer than 300 in the 2012-13 school year. Hundreds of students zoned to the school use the district’s transfer policy to attend other schools. Others enroll in charter schools.

Still, many Northside alumni, parents, and students were shocked when they learned last spring that administrators wanted to close the school for financial and academic reasons. The possibility was viewed as part of a pattern of disinvestment, or, in some case, as the school being “punished” for not being good enough.

Supporters of the school, decked in Northside orange, showed up en masse to district meetings and rallied on social media. Alumni recounted the school’s glory days, when it boasted a gospel choir and majorettes. Perhaps most convincingly, the Northside alumni association presented the superintendent and school board with the thick report about how and why the school should remain open, and what the community would do to help it.

The district and board agreed to keep the school open—if alumni and parents would commit to staying involved, and if academics improved.

Northside's new football coach gets players started on a drill.
Northside’s new football coach gets players started on a drill.
J. Zubrzycki

Today, just one master teacher who was at the school last year remains on staff. Vinson said the majority of teachers now at the school—with the exception of two Teach For America recruits—are experienced and had high marks on district evaluations. Thompson has also hired a new culinary arts teacher.

Thompson said he also hopes to improve the culture around discipline in the school. “The students need to be in school,” he said. “Out-of-school suspension shouldn’t be the first resort.”

Taking a page from the alumni’s book, Thomson decided he would not stand for a high school without a football team. The school’s new in-school suspension teacher is coaching the team. “If you lose your football team, that’s the first show of giving up,” Thompson said. “It says we’re going the way of the buffalo. The community needs to know that we’re viable and alive. They need to know we’ve got a new commitment to reestablishing the climate and culture desired by people who have graduated from this school.”

Northside principal Vinson Thompson, left, with alumni who keep the school open.
Northside principal Vinson Thompson, left, with alumni who keep the school open.
J. Zubrzycki

For its part, the alumni group has called more than 100 families to let them know that the school will, in fact, be open. Many had not been aware that the school had been removed from the closings list.

Northside alumni held a school supply drive earlier this summer and began reaching out to former school supporters to see if they would be interested in tutoring or sponsoring school programs.

Kacee Franklin, a member of the Northside alumni association, said he was concerned a charter school would be placed in the building, which might expand as Northside continues to shrink. Last year, a school that was part of the W.E.B. Dubois consortium of charter schools temporarily shared space with the school.

He said alumni continue to meet with district staff.

Students at the football practice this July were glad for the big changes. “I think it means we’ll get taught,” said Cahemiah Lurry, who attended the school last year. “Last year, I only ever got homework in one class.”

Coach Antwone Moore, who is new to the school and will run the school’s ISS class, said the team was just beginning to gain momentum. It had been challenging, as different groups of students had shown up for practices over the course of the summer. He hopes the team will congeal by the end of August.

“You have a lot of really talented kids, kids in great shape,” he said. “They just needed to be coached.”

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