Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps has voiced concerns over the impact of upcoming school closures on his south Jackson ward, a neighborhood that has historically wrestled disinvestment. File photo by Imani Khayyam.
Earlier this week, the Jackson Public Schools' board of trustees voted to close and consolidate several schools as part of the district's ongoing efforts to address decreasing student enrollment, teacher shortages and funding woes.
The board voted unanimously during its Jan. 7 meeting to close and consolidate Siwell Road Middle School in south Jackson with Cardozo Middle School. Hardy Middle School will close and consolidate with Blackburn Middle School. Barr Elementary School will also close at the end of the current school year, and Van Winkle Elementary will be repurposed into a pre-K school.
The closures and consolidations are part of JPS' "Optimizing for Equity Plan," the district's three-year school-district redesign plan in the wake of its shrinking student body.
Since 2011, JPS has lost more than 6,000 students, over 20% of its student population. During the 2010-2011 school year, 30,366 students attended schools in the district, but that number had plummeted to 23,935 by the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Data from JPS note that the overall decline in enrollment began to accelerate in the 2014-2015 year, though it is unclear why.
Shrinking enrollment has been especially profound at Siwell. Whereas 1,024 students were enrolled at Siwell Middle School during the 2008-2009 school year, the student population has decreased by more than 60% in the past decade. Only 395 students were enrolled at Siwell Middle School during the 2018-2019 school year.
Stamps: 'We're Going to Lose Even More Residents'
Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps voiced his concerns about the impact of school closures on his south Jackson ward during the school-board meeting.
"We're totally in support of probably 99% of the 'Optimizing for Equity Plan.' We just ask that we just take a little deeper dive into one piece of it when it involves Siwell Middle School," Stamps told the JPS board.
"There are some things that have been done in previous boards that has caused us a little destabilization in the area," he continued. "When the (International Baccalaureate) program moved out of there, we lost a development across the street on the corner of Siwell and Highway 18. So, as we make plans for this corridor, we just ask that you just take a look at it. We're not saying we're going to rail against anything, but we just want to take a deeper dive into the decision about moving Siwell, and we just ask for a little deeper consideration in that endeavor."
Stamps had laid out his concerns in more detail during last Monday's Jackson City Council work session. Though he lauded the "hard work" of the school board, he questioned its plans to close Siwell after the school had shown signs of improvement and after JPS received $65 million in bond funds to repair and renovate all 56 buildings in the district.
Stamps suggested that the closure of Siwell fell into a larger historical pattern of disinvestment in south Jackson. The board's decision, he said, did not reflect "what the (south Jackson) community feels is best for the community.
"We've lost residents because of the school issues. We've lost residents because of other disinvestments. And now we close a school, (and) we're going to lose even more residents because they don't want to go to Cardozo. Cardozo is a failing school. ... Sidwell has increased a letter grade over the last year," Stamps said.
"We're going to close a school that we just got $65 million (of) bond money to fix. ... It may not be an A school, but it is on a trajectory to move forward," he added.
'It's About the People Inside'
At Monday's council work session, Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba urged Stamps to reconsider his stance on the closures amid the bigger picture of funding and a dwindling population, not just in schools but in the greater Jackson area. He pointed to the fact that the DeSoto County School District, the largest in Mississippi, and Jackson Public Schools have comparable funding, but that JPS has many more buildings with low enrollment. Operating those extra buildings costs the district, he explained.
"We built half of these buildings when our population was far greater than it is today, so we have to solve that problem somehow," the mayor said, adding that education quality is "the number-one factor" for why people have moved out of Jackson in recent years.
"We have too many buildings for the number of students. I also think it's important to remember as we move forward with this discussion is that it's not about the buildings, it's about the people inside," Lumumba added.
Follow City Reporter Seyma Bayram on Twitter @SeymaBayram0. Send news tips to [email protected].