Citing dwindling student populations, the Mobile County school board moved Tuesday to close Mae Eanes Middle and Belsaw-Mt. Vernon schools and relocate their respective students to nearby facilities within the district.
The move is an amendment to a $2.5 million school improvement plan announced last month that caused major shakeups at Denton Middle School and Scarborough Middle School and also solidified the permanent closure of Brazier Elementary School.
With a 3-1 vote, the board approved a recommendation to relocate Eanes students to Williamson High School, under the new name Williamson Middle Grades Preparatory Academy.
While school officials say the closings will benefit students, some parents, alumni and at least one board member aren’t happy about the changes or how they were proposed. The decision to close two more schools was approved at a May 24 meeting but was revealed to some board members just days before a vote was scheduled.
While, MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek said “concerns about Eanes Middle School have been discussed all year long,” she said moving forward with the consolidation at the end of the school year created an opportunity to “provide parents information” and use the summer as a transition before the changes take place in August.However, that’s exactly what Commissioner Robert Battles said didn’t happen. Battles, who is one of the board’s two black commissioners, told Lagniappe he believes Peek intentionally kept him in the dark about the upcoming vote.
“As an elected official, it’s my responsibility to talk to and to work with my constituents to inform them about issues that affect or impact part of their children’s education,” Battles said. “When you had problems with Denton Middle School, you had town meetings with your communities so you could alert them to the possibility of what was happening. I have not been afforded the opportunity as commissioner to exercise my duly elected responsibilities.”
Though she didn’t address the way the issue came to Battles’ attention, Peek told Lagniappe the school closing would “make sure all students have the same options.” She added that as the number of a school’s students declines, so does the number of teachers and the services they can provide.
“A lot of people have been looking at this as a financial issue, but my perspective is students are the first priority, and we need to provide a comprehensive educational program for every student,” Peek said. “They have to be in a larger populated school so we have the teacher units to do that.”
back-to-back appearances on Alabama’s list of “failing schools” in 2015 and 2016, has seen its population drop significantly in the last decade. According to state records, Eanes recorded 764 students in 2006, but only 264 were enrolled last year.
Similarly, Williamson’s student population has been cut in half in the same time period, dropping from 1,113 to 573 in 2015. Other county schools have shown declining enrollment figures, especially those in the eastern half of the district closest to downtown Mobile.
Eanes faces particular challenges as several neighborhoods in the school’s zone — some of which include public housing — are likely to be impacted by the Mobile Housing Board’s $750 million redevelopment project in the area.
However, Peek said merging the schools would address those issues while also adding more academic programing and teacher units. According to MCPSS, closing both schools is also projected to save more than $4.5 million annually, by halving the maintenance, utility and professional services costs that previously went to both schools.During Tuesday’s meeting, no other board members joined Battles in his opposition to closing the schools, though several members of the audience did — some of whom have addressed the board about Eanes Middle School before.
The issue first arose last year when a planned renovation project at Eanes was scrapped once the school system realized a $100 million construction bond from 2012 wouldn’t stretch as far as originally intended.
As recently as last August, MCPSS was discussing using $7 million of that funding to build a new Eanes facility in the Maysville community, but ultimately the money went to pay for additional construction costs at Citronelle High School, Fournier-Chastang School and Murphy High School.
Last fall, Eanes became the center of a debate on what some claimed were racial disparities between predominately black schools and predominately white schools in the MCPSS system.
Those concerns were first brought up after a scathing report from the Mobile County Health Department found mold and mildew, water damage, “soiled patient beddings” in the nurse’s area, a dishwasher that wasn’t being utilized and “visible signs of insects and rodents” in the school’s cafeteria among other violations.
Though the system immediately addressed those health issues after they were made public, there were rumors at the time that Eanes would soon be closing permanently, forcing the school’s nearly 100 percent African-American student body to relocate.
This week’s amendment to the school improvement plan proved those rumors to be true, and Battles told his fellow board members he wasn’t surprised. He claimed Peek has “been on a one-way road to close Mae Eanes” since he joined the board in 2014.
After the vote, he accused the board and Peek of “classic racism” — an allegation they had no response to.
“I have a direct contact to the U.S. Department of Education and we will be filing a federal complaint alleging that African-Americans in this system — because of their race — are being disproportionately impacted by closing schools, and they’ve been denied participation in programs and school activities related to federal funding,” Battles said.
After the vote, Battles called for a community meeting at Eanes at 6 p.m., May 26, to discuss how those that want to save the school might move their efforts forward.
In a news release sent out ahead of the vote, Rena Philips, director of communications for MCPSS, wrote that both schools would benefit from the merger.
“The proposal will strengthen the curriculum at both schools, which have suffered from declining enrollment over the last decade,” Philips wrote. “And it will allow the district to add new programs that would benefit all students, including art, music, engineering, technology and career and technical education.”
According to Philips, the merger would also “increase the rigor and relevance” of academic programs in all grades. This district is also allocating funding to provide “signing bonuses” in hopes of attracting highly qualified teachers for math and science, positions that “have been hard to staff at Williamson and Eanes.”
Additionally, MCPSS plans to enhance student support and safety services by adding mentoring and intervention programs as well as a full-time school resource officer.
As for the range of ages among the students, which many parents representing Eanes and Williamson cited as a concern, Phillips said measures would be taken to ensure interactions between middle school and high school students are limited.
“Students in grades 6-8 will attend classes in a designated wing,” the release said. “They will arrive and leave school separately from the high school students, and they will eat during separate lunch waves.”7This week, board members approved plans to close Belsaw-Mt. Vernon School and move its students to North Mobile County Middle School. So far, the district hasn’t released details about what additional programs might be offered at the combined school, which will officially change its name to North Mobile County K-8 in August.
Among those who showed up to oppose that consolidation were Mt. Vernon Mayor James Adams and Town Councilor Gwendolyn Pugh. They joined a handful of Belsaw parents who pointed out that their facility “isn’t run down at all,” and could easily compare to many of the new facilities MCPSS has recently built.Pugh also said Belshaw has made progress under Principal Laura Carter-Walker, who took the helm of the school just last year. While Belsaw has managed to stay off the state’s list of failing schools, it faces enrollment issues similar to those of Mae Eanes and is currently 82-percent under capacity.
According to state data, there are currently just 98 students at Belsaw-Mt. Vernon School, which will now combine with the 473 students at North Mobile County Middle School. However, Pugh said she felt like those numbers were a reaction to curriculum offerings that have been removed from the school over the past six years including its music program and several extracurricular activities.
“Everything was taken away from us, and then parents did what parent do. ‘I want the best for my child, well it’s just 15 miles away, I’ll go to [North Mobile County] where there are band teachers and there are extra curricular activities,” Pugh said. “I don’t want to say we were set up to fail, but that’s the way it seems.”
Adams agreed with Pugh’s sentiment, saying he’d felt like the school’s closing had long been in the making. As mayor, he said it was something he suspected when North Mobile County Middle School was constructed, when Belsaw shifted from a middle school to an elementary school and again when the new Calcedeaver Elementary School opened last fall.
“You start seeing all these new schools around another school, what did we think was going to happen,” Adams said. “It looked like to me it was a cleverly-orchestrated plan.”
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