MarQuita Henderson had a vision for how her senior year of high school at GRAD Academy Memphis was going to go.
The 11th-grader was going to continue leading her school’s award-winning poetry team, which she believes changed her life. She was going to graduate with her best friends. She was already working on a poem to perform at graduation.
But all that changed in January, when GRAD Academy announced it was closing the charter school in South Memphis in June because of high costs and low enrollment. The school enrolled 468 students this year in a school built for 2,000. GRAD opened in 2013 as part of the Achievement School District, a state-run district tasked with turning around low-performing schools.
In a city with too many schools and too few students, school closures have been common in Memphis, mostly because of low enrollment and poor academic performance. At least 21 schools have closed since 2012 in the local district, Shelby County Schools. Over the past year, four schools in the state-run district have announced closures.
“It’s hard to think about us not being together next year after we spent so much time thinking about being seniors together,” MarQuita, 17, told Chalkbeat. “But I think, at least I did poetry here. I have a new confidence in myself. There’s a voice in me that wasn’t there before.”
MarQuita is one of six students on GRAD’s poetry team, which was founded three years ago and is led by Timothy Moore, a creative writing teacher. The group was named the best high school poetry team in Tennessee this month by Southern Word, a statewide poetry competition.
The team has become incredibly close knit, they said. They have traveled outside of Memphis for poetry competitions, spent hours editing each other’s work, and doing homework together. They lean on each other if they are having a bad day, need some support, or just want to hang out.
“I didn’t really know anyone on the team when I joined this year, I just knew being on the poetry team had been my dream all of high school,” said Alesha Griggs, 16. “But now, it’s like I can’t imagine not knowing these girls. And we’ll lean on each other now more than ever, because we’re going to new schools where we don’t know anyone else.”
Moore, who has taught at GRAD for four years, tries to make sure the conversations around school closures include the voices of those most affected — the students.
“As a team, we’ve been able to work through some of the anger and hurt that came with the announcement our school was closing,” Moore said. “We’ve had a space to do that. So many students don’t. But I still worry, will another teacher look after them next year? Did I do enough for them?”
The six friends will be split between three high schools — Hillcrest, Middle College, and Craigmont.
Most of them live in the neighborhood surrounding GRAD Academy, where school closures are all too familiar. The school is housed in the former South Side High School building, which was converted into a middle school and then closed in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.
“I was at South Side Middle School when it closed,” MarQuita said. “So when I heard GRAD was closing, my first thought was, is this our fault again? It feels like losing a family.”
Unlike in many school closures, GRAD Academy officials said they weren’t closing the school because of floundering academics. It has the greatest percentage of ASD high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017. But “higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs” were cited by GRAD officials as the main reasons to close.
For poetry member Belle Edgeston, that reasoning wasn’t enough.
“The reason, that it was such a business decision… still bothers me,” said Belle, 17. “We were the future 12th-grade class. That meant something to us, especially in being able to mentor younger kids in poetry.”
All six poetry members said being on the team has had a significant impact on their lives — especially under Moore’s leadership.
“This is my first year with a 4.0 GPA,” said Olivia Randle, 16. “I didn’t think that was possible. But I also would have never dreamed of us winning state, or of getting to travel for poetry. Mr. Moore made us think more of ourselves.”
Tamala Boyd-Shaw, the executive director of GRAD Memphis, said she’s proud of the confidence and experiences students have gained as part of Moore’s team.
“The students’ poems are often about struggles they endure as students in their own communities and families,” Boyd-Shaw said. “It’s allowed them to reflect and be proud, not just of what they’re saying, but of who they are. My hope is that all of our students land in schools next year that gives them opportunities like this.”
The girls hope to keep practicing together next school year, even though they know scheduling will be hard. Moore said he was hopeful they will keep competing, either as individuals or as a team.
“We’re going to become masters of group apps and Skype,” Moore said. “But I know we’re really going to miss writing as a family together after class. It’s funny, I’m a 36-year-old man, and I’m surprised at how much they taught me. They helped me find my own voice.”
Watch students Kyla Lewis and Olivia Randle perform “Systematical Fear:”