With the closing of two schools over the past two years, much uncertainty remains around education in the Klondike Smokey City community.
The heart of a community often is found in its schools. The same goes for Klondike and Smokey City, where many in those North Memphis neighborhoods fondly recall days of attending Sharon Lynn’s cosmetology class at Northside High School or watching the Cougars play. Walking with friends to school felt more like a daily family reunion.
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But that all changed before the current 2016-2017 school year when Shelby County Schools closed Northside, and the remaining students were rezoned for nearby Manassas High School. The ending was a slow one that began when a couple of newer school buildings opened in North Memphis.
The current environment for community schools is grim. The Smokey City neighborhood names only Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie and Gordon Achievement Academy. All of the schools in Klondike are set to close. The future of Perea Preschool, which is housed at Klondike Elementary School and operated by the Church Health Center, is uncertain with its home building winding down operations.
Students in Kwinta Green's third grade class work on an assignment at the Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie School in Smokey City.
The new Manassas High School opened in the 2007-2008 school year and Douglass High School opened the following academic year. Manassas is on the western edge of the Smokey City neighborhood, and Douglass is about four miles to the east. These two new buildings, along with Central High about four miles south, would help signal the end for Northside, which over the next eight years saw attendance plummet.
While enrollment dropped, Eric Dunn didn’t think the school should’ve closed. He grew up in the community and is working to better understand the education dynamics in Klondike Smokey City. He’s considering a campaign for a seat on the Shelby County Commission with education his main focus.
“There’s no pride in the schools anymore. The stability isn’t there anymore. These kids don’t know if this school will be there tomorrow. That’s a big difference.”
He argues that Northside could have been the primary school for vocational training for careers including cosmetology, mechanics and HVAC. A Northside graduate, he said everyone took pride in the school and were excited about the vocational offerings.
“We knew we’d take Ms. Lynn’s class in cosmetology,” Dunn said, referring to longtime teacher Sharon Lynn. “We had something to look forward to when we went to Northside.”
The Northside story is just a part of the overall education picture in North Memphis, and specifically Klondike Smokey City. Recent news has another couple of neighborhood schools closing, both mainstays in the community.
Eric Dunn, education advocate, poses for a portrait in Smokey City.
Gestalt Community Schools operates Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary for the state-run Achievement School District. Gestalt in October announced it would cease managing both schools at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 academic year.
In a statement at that time, Gestalt CEO Yetta Lewis said, “Despite diligent efforts to apply our successful model at Humes and Klondike, enrollment numbers have continued to decline, as families migrate to other parts of Memphis.”
Low enrollment numbers are the stated reasons for closing. Humes operates at 69 percent of capacity and Klondike at 33 percent.
Both are North Memphis schools with decades-long history. Humes sits on the western edge of Smokey City where as a high school it was the alma mater of Elvis Presley. In later years it became a middle school that is now operated as a charter.
Klondike has been an important anchor in the heart of that neighborhood for decades and sits next to the now-vacant Northside High School facility.
There is still hope for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle in the Uptown neighborhood. The school is in the process of finding an operator to continue after Gestalt no longer runs the school this year.
The Achievement School District has said it plans to make an announcement by Feb. 1 if a pending application from Frayser Community Schools will be accepted.
Klondike children will enroll at Vollentine Optional Elementary School, which is just less than a mile to the east along Vollintine Avenue.
Students in Mrs. Shepard's kindergarten class work on a project at the Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie School in Smokey City.
That extra mile is problematic for some children walking from home, particularly as crossing Watkins Street will become part of their path to school.
Dunn hopes to have a town hall meeting in the next month or so to discuss those safety issues for children as well as possible bussing.
Reginald Worles graduated from Northside in 1992 and now has two elementary school-aged sons growing up in the community. He is a proud of his roots and stays involved; he is part of the Northside Alumni Alliance and helps operate the North Memphis Elite and Memphis Cowboys Athletic Association.
The Memphis Cowboys is made up of four football teams and cheerleaders for children ages 4 to 12 in the Klondike area, and North Memphis Elite is an organization made up of men in the area who perform community service by providing school supplies and food to the community and help high school students get dresses and tuxedoes for prom.
Worles is concerned for the future of the neighborhood, in part because of the loss of trade classes that were offered at Northside.
"Enrollment goes down and crime goes up.”
That high school training in cosmetology, auto mechanics and home economics helped plenty of students learn an occupation that could lead to entrepreneurship in the neighborhood.
“Those same students go on to own beauty salons and auto shops in the city,” he said. “You take that out and that’s the beginning of the end of the enrollment for the school. They took out all the trade programs and then they rezoned the area. By rezoning you saw kids dropping out of school and then you were left with just students from Klondike.
And with just one community your enrollment went down. Enrollment goes down and crime goes up.”
With his youth engagement programs, he’s trying to amend what could be a bleak future for the children of Klondike Smokey City.
“There is a lot of peer pressure, single-parent homes and poverty,” he said. “The lack of a male role model and poverty are probably the biggest things. That’s where we try to come in and be a positive role model for some of the kids that don’t have a male figure in the home.”
Students at Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie play with their school mascot "Jiggy."
Worles said he hopes to expand the Memphis Cowboys program beyond football and cheerleading and add baseball and basketball. He said the return of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to the community would be a big plus.
But he said all that potential for growth is centered on the schools.
“There’s no pride in the schools anymore,” he said. “The stability isn’t there anymore. These kids don’t know if this school will be there tomorrow. That’s a big difference.”
Maybe a brighter future is ahead, at least if the foundation that’s built at Perea Preschool can be attached to wherever the children end up attending elementary school.
Perea Preschool began ministering to North Memphis families in 1999 and has been located the Klondike elementary school building since 2010. The pre-K school has a basic job of implementing a curriculum that prepares struggling children to enter kindergarten.
More than that, it teaches the children social and emotional skills that can help them handle situations such as when a classmate takes away a toy. Those skills learned at a young age then can be used as an adult in how to better resolve conflicts.
“We’re invested a lot in this community,” said Alicia Norman, Perea principal. “We’re still interested in ministering to this community. We’ve built relationships with families and we want to continue that relationship.”
Even though its home is closing, the preschool plans to stay in the Klondike community where it provides a head start for the community’s children.
Many students of the first graduating class of Perea are now in their third year of college. About half of them returned a few years ago for a reunion and all were on track to graduate high school.
Thanks to word of mouth, plenty of parents in the community want to be part of the Perea school. There is a waiting list of 380 students.
Perea is dedicated to the community but its future is still unknown. What happens to those children as they move along their education in the following years is a point of concern. Dunn argues that having teachers who have the ability to form relationships with parents and students will help.
Worles is quick to say the community’s leaders must get more involved with the children.
“It’s all of us getting together and working as a team,” he said. “If we can get some things in place to help these kids growing up, that will be great.”