Memphis Catholic Bishop J. Terry Steib likens the coming changes in two well-known Catholic schools with long histories to a nova.
“Later this spring we will reshape Memphis Catholic High School and Bishop Byrne High School into one entity,” Steib said in a recorded announcement Thursday, Jan. 24, as the closing of Bishop Byrne at the end of the current school year was announced. “Like the stars of the universe – a nova that implodes creates more stars – Memphis Catholic and Bishop Byrne have reached their peaks and will now help to build a model diocesan school. The best of Bishop Byrne and Memphis Catholic will be used to create the new star.”
While Bishop Byrne closes, there also will be changes at Memphis Catholic, which in recent years stemmed a drop in enrollment with the “Education That Works” program.
The school has a fee for service contract with employers who provide jobs for the students. The employer agrees to put up $20,000 per job. Each job is held by four students and each student on the team works five days a month, one day a week, rotating on Fridays. The breakdown amounts to $5,000 toward each student’s tuition, or approximately 66 percent of the amount.
Catholic Schools superintendent Janet Donato said the program will be expanded at Catholic High but that the school will also expand in terms of its college preparatory curriculum including dual enrollment that gives students college credit. The revamped Catholic High School plans include an upgrade in technology and its extracurricular activities including sports.
Steib said “Education That Works” will be “adjusted to give students on the job experience while maximizing academic experiences.”
Catholic High and Bishop Byrne have about the same number of students across a grades 7-12 structure. Catholic High has 190, according to principal Nick Green while Bishop Byrne has 170, according to Donato.
But the Bishop Byrne facility had higher maintenance needs than Memphis Catholic.
Donato termed the changes at both schools “a strategic initiative” but also acknowledged closing a school is always a difficult decision. In her career as an educator, Donato taught at two local Catholic schools that were closed. The decision to close Bishop Byrne comes during her first full month on the job since she was selected as the permanent successor as superintendent to Dr. Mary McDonald.
Bishop Byrne opened as a grade 9-12 high school in 1965 when Whitehaven was still part of the unincorporated county. The high school grew to several hundred students as Whitehaven grew. The school also benefited from a 1970 consolidation of Catholic schools and racial integration efforts. So did Catholic High School, which went coeducational after being a boys’ school.
Donato said in recent years attendance has declined at Bishop Byrne, which led to the closing of a middle school at nearby St. Paul Catholic Church to boost enrollment at Bishop Byrne.
As enrollment has dropped at Bishop Byrne, Whitehaven High School, a Memphis City School, just 1.3 miles away from Bishop Byrne, has thrived in recent years, adding advanced placement courses and an optional schools program focused on business and finance. Whitehaven High School has an enrollment of more than 2,000 students.
Bishop Byrne is the successor to the old St. Thomas High School and St. Thomas Academy in South Memphis. The 1965 blueprints for the school bear the name St. Thomas School, according to “Between The Rivers,” a history of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis published by the diocese.
The school, named for Catholic Bishop Thomas Sebastian Byrne, still holds artifacts from the St. Thomas parish and school including.