A review of student enrollment data kept by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) shows Mae Eanes Middle School in Mobile has been hemorrhaging students for the past decade, sometimes losing hundreds in a single year.
The middle school has been the center of local controversy since the Mobile County school board voted 4-1 in favor of closing the facility and relocating its 264 remaining students to nearby Williamson High School last month.Board Member Robert Battles, who voted against the closure, has been joined by a group of around 200 community members from the Maysville area claiming the consolidation was the culmination of years of neglect — something they claim was calculated and racially motivated.
Going back to the year 2000, Mae Eanes has maintained a student population that is 100 percent black, according to state records. However, the same records show students began leaving in droves for other schools in the district around 2006.
Rena Philips, director of communications for MCPSS, said a number of factors contributed to the dispersal of those students, but rezoning around the 2005-2006 school year caused a measurable drop in population. At the time, student numbers at Mae Eanes fell from 1,012 to 764, but according to Philips, the school was “overcrowded” prior those rezoning efforts.Since then, Superintendent Martha Peek says “there’s been a steady decline in enrollment,” which state data seems to support. ALSDE also recorded 764 students enrolled at Mae Eanes in 2006, followed by 613 in 2007, 513 in 2008 and just 471 in 2009.
“There’s been changes to the general population in the area, and some of that is affected by changes in public housing options,” Peek said. “That’s one of the things we’re seeing, but we’re also seeing a shift in the general population and a growth in the number of apartment complexes being built in the outlying areas of the city.”
Several neighborhoods in the school’s zone will also likely to be impacted as the Mobile Housing Board continues its plans for a $750 million redevelopment project expected to affect R.V. Taylor Plaza, Thomas James Place and the Frank W. Boykin tower.
Last fall, Peek said the school board was working “working with the Housing Board,” and said Eanes’ student population would have likely continued to drop because “those housing developments are not going to be there any longer.”
Like a number of schools that have failed to meet statewide standards, Eanes felt the effects of the Alabama Accountability Act. Passed in 2013, the law extends a $3,500 tax credit to families transferring a child out of a failing public school to a non-failing public or private school.
“Certainly, Mae Eanes has been one of the schools with academic challenges, and that problem has I’m sure had an impact on the school,” Peek said.
Since the Accountability Act went into effect, 230 students have transferred to other schools in the MCPSS district, and of those, 77 were from Mae Eanes. Based on data provided by Student Services Coordinator Terrence Mixon, those transfers sent students to middle schools like Hankins, Pillans, Grand Bay, Scarborough and Belsaw-Mt. Vernon — another school the system voted to close last month.
Though Eanes has seen the most inter-district transfers due to the accountability act, “hardship transfers” have actually had a larger impact on the number of students who’ve changed schools in the same period of time.
Based on Mixon’s data, 88 students left the school during the 2014-2015 school year, followed by another 90 students this past year. Philips told Lagniappe a student could be granted a hardship transfer for a number of reasons.
“If a student has a certain medical condition or they require special education or a certain program, they can apply for a hardship transfer,” Philips said. “Even if the school just doesn’t offer a certain curriculum, they can go to another school to get the classes they want or need.”
However, unlike school choice transfers under the accountability act, the district does not provide transportation for students who change schools under hardship transfers.
One issue that has come up in discussions about Mae Eanes and Belsaw-Mt. Vernon was the lack of band programs prior the school’s closing. While school officials say there weren’t enough teacher units to fund instructors for those programs, parents are saying the lack of those programs helped drive more of the population away from the schools.
Peek said consolidating schools and increase student populations should address those issues.
“Teacher allocation is determined by the number of students in your building, and when you get down to 260 students, what you can offer is basically just the core courses,” Peek said. “You don’t have enough latitude to offer electives like you would like to, but you can create more course offerings by sharing teachers.”
Peek said that’s the idea she had in mind when she recommended the board combine Mae Eanes with Williamson, adding that together, the larger population would help fund new teachers and courses that benefit students from both schools.
Though junior high students will attend class in a separate wing, many parents remain concerned about 12-year-old students attending school alongside high school seniors. So far, the only remedy school officials have offered those parents are the options to send their children 20 miles away to Grand Bay Middle School or transfer them to Scarborough Middle School.
While Scarborough was also one of the 12 MCPSS facilities on the ALSDE’s list of “failing schools” this year, board members have already approved $2.5 million plan that includes the reconstitution of the Scarborough’s staff — meaning the entire staff will be reset and possibly replaced before the next school year.
Still, Battles and many others in the community say the fight to save Mae Eanes “is not over.” Peek, on the other hand, told reporters this week “the decision was made.” While she said there are not any plans to repurpose the existing facility at this time, it’s most likely the building will be empty when classes resume in August.
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