Historic Opportunity

Schools officials honor Humes’ past while planning for its future

By Bill Dries

The best look at the competition conventional public schools in Memphis face begins at Humes Middle School, which recently got some attention for the birthday anniversary of a student who went there in the 1950s.

Seventh grade students fill out a worksheet during teacher Tina Dawn Womack’s piano class at Humes Middle School. Humes is converting to a music arts optional school.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

The marker to come from the Tennessee Historical Commission later this year noting its days as a high school and its most famous alum – Elvis Presley – will also mark the conversion of Humes from a conventional school this school year to an optional school for the musical arts next school year.

The countywide school board voted in December to close Humes as a conventional middle school, the first step in a transition that is to take effect in August with the new school year.

Humes lost its sixth graders to the state-led Achievement School District charter school operated within nearby Gordon Elementary School starting with the current school year.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash has said the Achievement School District originally wanted Humes, not Gordon, but that he resisted that because of Humes’ long history and its symbolism.

Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic acknowledges Gordon is not in the state’s bottom 5 percent schools in terms of student performance, which is what qualifies a school to be in the district.

“The design of all of this was to give the kids of Gordon Elementary a better place to go to middle school. They were going to Humes, and Humes had been a school that was struggling for a long period of time,” Barbic said. “Whatever the district decides to do with (Gordon), that’s a district decision. We don’t have any authority over a school that is not in the bottom 5 percent.”

Seventh grade students play a melody during teacher Tina Dawn Womack’s piano class at Humes Middle School. Because of dwindling attendance at the school, Humes is converting to a music arts optional school. 

Cash had hoped to turn all of Gordon over to the Achievement School District. But there wasn’t agreement with the district on that. So those plans have been canceled. But the conversion of Humes is still on.

Humes is the only middle school in the general area of northwest Memphis operated in a conventional manner as part of Memphis City Schools.

Memphis City Schools officials count 514 middle school-age students in the Humes area. Of that total, 190 are in the seventh and eighth grades at Humes. Of the sixth graders, 140 are attending the charter school within Gordon Elementary School operated by Gestalt Community Schools under agreement with the Achievement School District.

The remaining 184 seventh and eighth graders in the Humes area attend either optional programs at other schools or one of the 14 charter schools in the general area.

“They are not all choosing Humes,” said Catherine Battle, the regional superintendent for the region that includes Humes. “The families seek experiences that you can’t get in a very small middle school program. … We aren’t getting a market share of those kids now. This is the only public school option in that whole feeder area.”

Barbic has had to compete with higher Memphis City Schools teacher salaries in hiring a separate faculty for his schools. He says the competition is already a reality on several levels.

“We may not all believe that this idea of multiple schools and multiple operators is the way to go. … But I think what we do know is what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked for a lot of the kids. I think to debate that is kind of silly,” Barbic said. “I think this idea that the district is trying to respond by providing more options for families is conceptually a good thing.”

Students hang out after school at Humes Middle School. Because of dwindling attendance at the school, Humes is converting to a music arts optional school. 

Battle said Humes eighth graders who aren’t part of the optional school in the new school year would likely be transferred to Manassas High School with all of next school year’s seventh graders remaining at Humes.

“A huge arts infusion is getting ready to happen at the school to prepare them for this,” she said. “But what we also have seen is a big, big interest by a lot of people that aren’t there right now who want to be there.”

School board member David Reaves questioned the inner-city location for a school open for enrollment to students from across Shelby County.

“The school’s in a rough part of town,” he said last month. “I understand that we are wanting to do something that is a national model. … But are we setting this up for failure by where we are placing it?”

Battle said interest in the school’s conversion remains high as the arts groups that would work within the school get a closer look at its potential.

Ballet on Wheels Dance School & Co. is one of the arts groups the school system has talked with about being part of the Humes conversion offering classes for studio space at Humes.

“If everything goes through we look forward to participating and being able to bring the arts to the school and the community,” said Chauniece Conner, the founder of Ballet on Wheels. “It would be a great partnership. We are waiting on the red tape and everything just to clear.”

Conner’s company and school already operates within a school, Hutchison School in East Memphis.

“I just think it’s a great opportunity for the students. I think it’s a great neighborhood to be able to integrate arts into,” she said of a move to Humes. “Our mission is being able to involve all students in art, particularly dance.”