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Memphis’ Kingsbury High School community steps up call for changes

Two women stand in front of a crowd of people sitting at tables in an old church building with stained glass windows

Maria Oceja, the guardian of a Kingsbury student, and Gisela Guerrero, an organizer with MICAH, address a crowd of over 25 Kingsbury High School students, parents, community members, and activists who gathered at Su Casa Family Ministries on Monday to air concerns about the school and discuss forming a parent-teacher-student association.

Samantha West / Chalkbeat

Rebekah Kail has two children at Kingsbury High School whom Memphis-Shelby County Schools classifies as “exceptional” students. 

Her daughter, a ninth-grader, is part of CLUE, a program for academically gifted students provided through the district’s department for exceptional children and health services. Her older son, an 11th-grader who is developmentally delayed, receives special education services from the same department.

And as far as she’s concerned, neither of them is getting the quality of education they deserve.

She was among more than 25 parents, students, teachers, neighborhood residents, and community activists who gathered Monday night at Su Casa Ministries to voice their concerns about Kingsbury and discuss how to save their neighborhood school. 

Zyanya Cruz, who has been organizing the gatherings as part of an effort to create a Kingsbury parent-teacher-student association, said Monday’s meeting was about giving space for students, parents, teachers, and community members to air their frustrations with Kingsbury, and less focused on solutions. But she said she is encouraged by the group’s progress.

“We’re going to be here and we’re not going to let up,” said Cruz, an organizer with the Center for Transforming Communities. “Even though the school year is ending, we’re still going to keep working. We want to get these things changed and we want students to feel comfortable and families to feel respected.” 

Since MSCS officials announced in late March that all Kingsbury teachers must reapply for their jobs in order to return next school year, community members have become more vocal about a wide range of concerns with Kingsbury: from the condition and cleanliness of the building and an increased police presence on school grounds, to the unmet needs of the schools’ growing population of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

At an earlier meeting, many were skeptical that the so-called fresh start at the school would help address their concerns.

At this week’s meeting, much of the discussion centered on students’ experiences — and the complaints kept mounting. Several students described feeling as though they’re treated like animals and fed like prisoners. 

Most of the participants asked to remain anonymous for fear of punishment for speaking out against administrators and teachers, but Kail was one unwavering voice in the crowd. 

“These are our kids,” Kail said, her voice strained as she glanced down at her daughter, Taylor Parsons, seated next to her. “This is my daughter — I want her to have a good life. I don’t want her to have to be in this neighborhood forever. … We have to address these barriers to our children’s learning.”

Every day, one student said, it seems there are new guards and police officers, armed and in uniform, who make them feel intimidated.

One student described feeling fearful every day because she knows some of her peers bring weapons to school, despite the metal detectors at the entrance.

Students also lamented the condition of the bathrooms: toilet paper littering the floors, and clogged toilets overflowing onto them. They described students “doing their business” on the floor, or sticking feminine hygiene products to the bathroom walls when garbage cans are full. 

Multiple students complained of inedible lunches, describing room-temperature milk, food that is still frozen, and fruit that is often soggy, unripe, or overripe. One student estimated she spends $70 or more every week ordering lunch to school through DoorDash. Others described going hungry all day.

At the root of all those issues is an overarching lack of respect for students, said Parsons, the ninth-grader. 

Her mother, Kail, echoed the concerns about the bathrooms and lunch food, but said she is most alarmed by the effect those small, seemingly easy-to-fix problems have on student learning.

“If you have to pee all day, you are not going to learn why the War of 1812 was fought. I mean, I’m just saying, I wouldn’t learn it,” she said. “If I was hungry, I would not be focused on whatever you’ve got going on in math class. I’d be like, ‘You guys got some chicken nuggets back there?’”

“The ultimate goal has to be their education,” she said. “To do that, they have to be able to eat. They have to be able to use the bathroom.”

MSCS officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. In a previous interview with Chalkbeat, Superintendent Joris Ray said that having teachers at Kingsbury, as well as at Hamilton High School and Airways Achievement Academy, reapply for their jobs is part of an ongoing district-wide staff restructuring to improve school climate and student performance.

“I think the fresh start is going to make the schools better and the students are definitely going to benefit,” Ray said. 

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But at Monday’s meeting, students, parents, and community members said a district-led purge of teachers would not solve the problems they’re most concerned about.

Maria Oceja, the guardian of a sibling in ninth grade at Kingsbury, said the problems spotlighted at Kingsbury right now are representative of longstanding issues across the district, especially in low-income communities. Oceja said she encountered the same challenges when she attended Craigmont High, and recalls feeling unprepared for college.

Oceja said she’s tired of seeing the same patterns repeat. 

“Our students are intelligent. Our students have so much potential and so much talent and it’s not being nurtured,” Oceja said.

“We’re creating a workforce of disempowered people,” she said, noting the city’s disproportionate number of warehouse jobs. “They want to keep us here.”

Oceja and several other guardians, parents, students, community members, and activists in attendance said they nonetheless left with hope that change will come if they keep up their fight against decades of disinvestment in the school and neighborhood.

Oceja closed the meeting by leading a bilingual chant: “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can) and “I believe that we will win.” 

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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