Humes Remembers Past, Reflects Future

By Bill Dries

Elvis Presley’s alma mater is a very different place these days. But then again, so is the structure of public education in Memphis.

For starters, Humes High School has been a middle school for some time.

Now that Gestalt Community Schools has moved its charter school into Humes Middle School, the school is incorporating arts into a curriculum already focused on STEM subjects.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

And earlier this month, the school reopened as “Humes Preparatory Academy,” a charter school operated by Gestalt Community Schools as part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Several hundred Elvis fans filed into the school’s auditorium Tuesday, Aug. 13, for the unveiling of a new historic marker to go outside the school.

Those in the auditorium saw a few modern-day students in a hallway. But for the most part, it was a regular school day elsewhere in the large building in what is normally a busy month at Humes with the start of school and its proximity to Elvis Week.

More than a few Elvis fans including several school teachers talked with Derwin Sisnett, cofounder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, which also operates Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill, about the complexities of public education in Memphis this school year.

“Charters a lot of times get accused of creaming from the top and getting the best and brightest and that’s why charters get great results,” Sisnett said later. “Really as an Achievement School District school it’s the opposite. Parents don’t opt to get their kids in. They have to opt to take their kids out.”

Sisnett assured the fans the school’s name, school colors and mascot remain the same and an Elvis Room of memorabilia from the school’s 1950s era will remain open to honor his legend as the school works in the present with “legends that are being created in this building.”

“To us the Elvis Room isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s a big part of the history of this building,” he said. “This building could suit about 1,100 scholars. So we’ll definitely have enough space to meet our scholars’ needs and meet the community’s needs.”

The district is for the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement. The goal is to put those schools in the state’s top 25 percent in terms of student achievement in five school years.

Although this is Gestalt’s first year in the Humes building, it is the second year the charter school has taught Humes students. Gestalt operated last school year at nearby Gordon Elementary School taking fifth graders who would ordinarily go to Humes.

This year they have all of the grades at the middle school and the building.

With the move to the Humes building, the charter school has added an arts element to its emphasis from the previous school year on science, technology, engineering and math. The blend of arts with a STEM curriculum is what educators call a STEAM curriculum.

“The programming has changed to really address the dire need here,” Sisnett said. “We did feel it was important to bring the arts, the legacy that was already here, to bring it into our program.”

The countywide school board scrapped plans for an optional school with a music arts curriculum at Humes. The optional school is now planned for Fairview Middle School in the 2014-2015 school year.

Meanwhile, each of the four grades at Humes has 100 to 150 students each or will have after Labor Day.

Late registration by parents who don’t show up before the school year starts remains a fact of life for the unified school district and for the achievement district schools.

So does competition among the mix of charter schools, Achievement School District schools, charters within that district, conventional public schools now in one single public school system for the county and private schools.

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton was to formally open the W.E.B. DuBois Elementary School and Middle School Wednesday on Germantown Road South, north of East Shelby Drive. The school year began this month with the charter school group announcing it was canceling plans to open two other charter schools because they didn’t enroll enough students. Herenton has cited the competition for students among all of the different types of schools.

The W.E.B. Dubois Consortium is operating charter schools under contract with the countywide school board that are not part of the Achievement School District.

An advertisement showing before movies at Malco movie theaters this past weekend advertised for students at Frayser Achievement Elementary School, which is run directly by the Achievement School District.

Meanwhile, Jason Bernal, president of YES Prep charter schools of Houston was also in the city Tuesday to talk about that organization’s plans for the 2014-2015 school year, also as part of the Achievement School District. The organization is awaiting word on which low performing conventional school it will be matched with by the ASD.

YES Prep is the charter school organization founded by Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District.