Once a premier Memphis school with more than 2,000 students, East High School is now under-enrolled, underperforming, and could face closure or state intervention if Shelby County Schools can’t reinvent the Midtown institution, leaders of Shelby County Schools told a neighborhood meeting Monday evening.

More than 100 people gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear district administrators cast their vision of what a revitalized East High could look like.

Leaders outlined a proposal to turn East into an all-optional school focused on T-STEM: transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. The change, which would be phased in over four years beginning next school year, means East eventually would cease being a neighborhood school, and its students would be selected based on academics and attendance.

But the crowd, comprised mainly of alumni and faculty, was mostly skeptical of the idea, especially if it means busing neighborhood kids elsewhere.

“If this school dies, that affects the whole zip code, the whole town,” said Timothy Harris, an East alum who works for the city of Memphis. “You can’t send these kids to Melrose. … That’s a rival school. This is an anchor. You think you have a gang problem now?”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the crowd that the district faces hard choices in the face of shrinking enrollment and funding. The challenges and choices are the subject of a series of community meetings that kicked off this week and could lead to the closure of up to 24 schools over the next five years.  (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk, including East.)

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sits with other members of his staff in East's auditorium.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and several staff members sit with school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones during the meeting.

“I don’t want to have a conversation about closing East, or a conversation about East being taken over by the state,” said Hopson, referencing that the state-run Achievement School District has authority to take control of schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “I want to talk tonight about transforming East and making East the shining star again of Shelby County Schools.”

East has offered an optional engineering program since 1984, but the once-robust program has dwindled to just 35 students. The entire school’s enrollment is just over 500 students in a building designed to accommodate 2,000.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez presented the district’s proposal, based largely on its application last spring for a $6 million federal grant aimed at boosting East’s STEM focus. The district didn’t win the grant, but administrators say the plan, including an emphasis on transportation logistics, is still the best course of action to revitalize East. It would connect the school to local transportation and delivery powerhouses such as FedEx, which has agreed to partner with East under its T-STEM model, Ramirez said.

Community members had a lot of questions for presenters, including why the district gradually eliminated classes under its once-thriving vocational-technology program. East once provided instruction in mechanics, woodshop, welding and printing. Now, culinary arts is the only one left.

Cheronda Thompson, a 1996 alumna, said East’s “vo-tech” program was pivotal to her education.

“Once the vo-tech programs started to leave, the kids left,” Thompson said. “STEM isn’t new to East, but it used to be more hands-on. It prepared me to go on to college and major in engineering. I’m most concerned our neighborhood babies won’t get to benefit if they make these changes.”

While most of the community comments reflected skepticism about the T-STEM proposal, a few people in attendance expressed openness to the idea during small group breakout sessions and afterwards.

“I believe it’s a good thing for this school,” said Sean Adams, a sophomore at East. “… I know they don’t want to kick kids out of anything, but something’s got to change.”

District spokeswoman Natalia Powers said after the meeting that leaders will consider the community’s input. Leaders will have to make a decision during the next few months since the proposal calls for launching the freshman class of the T-STEM program for the 2017-18 school year.