A lack of support on the school board appears to have derailed a proposal to convert Murphy High School into an “open zone” school before a detailed plan could even be conceived.

In October, the Mobile County Public School System was weighing the idea of creating an “open enrollment” school zone for MHS. Though details were few, it considered opening the school up to students throughout the county while limiting the overall enrollment with stringent academic and conduct standards.

The idea garnered support among some parents of current and future students as well as the Murphy High School Alumni Association, but it also drew criticism for what some — including Mobile County School Commissioner Robert Battles — perceived to be a racial motivation.

Murphy High School. (Jason Johnson)

Concerns over shifting “demographics” were aired during discussions about the idea. The school has a student population that’s 76 percent black in a neighborhood of Mobile that’s predominantly white.

More importantly, Reginald Crenshaw, Ph.D., said the “open enrollment” concept for Murphy struggled to gain support among his fellow school board members, which is why the matter has yet to be proposed for public consideration or a formal vote. “That’s the politics of it,” he said.

“Commissioner [Robert] Battles and myself were for it, but we don’t have three votes, so there’s no sense in bringing it forward at this time,” Crenshaw told Lagniappe. “I think it would be a great move for Murphy, but I think a couple of principals felt it could affect students at their schools, so the other three board members decided not to support it.”

Battles confirmed his support, though he declined to comment further on the issue. Despite concerns with the motivation, Battles said he supported the idea because students diverted from Murphy could potentially help build up dwindling populations at other inner-city schools.

Board members Doug Harwell and Don Stringfellow did not respond to requests for comment, and Board President William Foster, Ph.D., kept his comments brief — saying only that he couldn’t speculate about the board’s position because it was never presented with a fleshed-out proposal.

Crenshaw didn’t name the schools he said were opposed to the change, and at least one principal in West Mobile flatly denied any such concerns. With Murphy’s non-contiguous school zone, though, any zoning change could have potentially far-reaching impacts within the district.

Theoretically, it could have pulled high-performing students from other MCPSS high schools, while forcing those same schools to accept former MHS students who couldn’t meet the new academic or behavioral standards at the “open zone” school. With that said, no one knows exactly how a zoning adjustment would have shaken out because the proposal never made it that far.

There’s been no official indication the proposal won’t be moving forward, as those who proposed it are proceeding as such. However, that doesn’t mean changes aren’t coming to Murphy.

“The concept of Murphy High no longer having an attendance zone did not garner the necessary support,” Superintendent Martha Peek said in an emailed statement. “However, the plan for Murphy High School’s Signature Early College Academy and additional colleges and academies at the school will be in place for the 2018-2019 school year.”

While details about the “Signature Early College Academy” are limited, MCPSS spokeswoman Rena Philips said the system’s goal moving forward is that “all students would enroll in a ‘college’ at Murphy and earn college credit while still in high school.”

The school already offers an early college program with the University of Alabama, which will facilitate the “College Preparatory” track at Murphy. Moving forward, there will be five other “colleges” MHS students can choose to enroll in, including advanced placement, global studies, fine arts, military leadership (JROTC), dual enrollment and culinary arts.

Additional details can be found at the school’s newly revamped website, murphyhigh.net.

However, like the “open zone” proposal, the coming transition is expected to reduce Murphy’s current population, which the Alabama State Department of Education reports at just over 1,800 students. Philips said using of the system of various “colleges” is expected to reduce enrollment to roughly 1,500 students as the 2018-2019 school year begins.

Peek retiring after four decades with MCPSS
The current school year will be Mobile County Superintendent Martha Peek’s last in a system she’s worked in for 46 years as a teacher, principal and administrator.

Mobile County Schools Superintendent Martha Peek. (Twitter)

Though Peek’s contract was initially scheduled to expire last summer, the Mobile County School Board approved a one-year extension in late 2016. With that, the board set June 30, 2018, as Peek’s official last day at the helm of Alabama’s largest school system.

Her departure has been openly discussed for more than year, but those plans became more tangible Jan. 8 when MCPSS posted its first advertisement seeking her replacement — kicking off what what board members say will be a nationwide search.

In addition to leading the largest school system, Peek is leaving behind one of the highest salaries earned by an Alabama public school employee. According to state records, Peek makes $215,332 per year — second only to the $264,736 Craig Pouncey, Ph.D., receives in the Jefferson County system.

In 181 years, Peek is first female superintendent of MCPSS. In her tenure over the past six years, the system’s graduation rate has increased 14 percent along with the number of students taking advanced placement courses and earning college scholarships or career credentials.

Peek also led efforts to establish Signature Academies in all of the district’s high schools. An integral part of MCPSS’ school choice options, each is dedicated to a specific educational or occupational path that students may transfer to pursue.

Asked by reporters, Peek said her replacement would be “coming into one of the greatest jobs out there” and would have an opportunity “to impact the lives of 56,000 students” every day.

“The one thing I regret is not getting people to consistently understand that it is a great school system, and we have great schools in our district,” she added. “We’ve all worked on doing that, and it’s just a matter of continuing that so when people think of MCPSS, they think [of] excellence.”