Two historic Memphis schools – Carnes Elementary School and Northside High School – could be reborn as a charter school and a small business incubator, respectively, pending board approval.

Believe Memphis Academy pitched its bid to buy Carnes Elementary School for $250,000 at a  Shelby County Schools facilities meeting on Tuesday. The charter school opened in 2018 as a college preparatory charter school and serves about 114 students in fourth and fifth grades, with plans to eventually expand to teaching through eighth grade.

At least half of the 21 district school buildings closed in Memphis since 2012 stand empty.  As the district seeks more community input on a massive school consolidation plan, finding new uses for the empty buildings is an important part of the conversation.

Board members favored selling Carnes because the building needs $3.8 million in repairs and has been severely vandalized since the board voted to close the school in 2017, according to district officials.

“I’d rather see this building utilized than boarded up,” said Althea Greene, a board member whose district includes Believe Memphis Academy. “I’m in (Believe Memphis) classrooms, and I’m excited about what’s going on.”

If the board approves the sale of Carnes at its Sept. 24 board meeting, Believe Memphis founder Danny Song said the goal would be to relocate by the start of the next school year – about a two-mile move from where it currently leases space.

“Having a high-quality school option in this neighborhood is our number one priority,” Song said. “We see different opportunities that a building of this size could offer, including leasing out some office space to other nonprofits.”

On last year’s state test scores, 35.8% of the school’s students were proficient in math, while 14.7 were proficient in literacy. This compares with 27.2% of all district students scoring proficient in math, and 20.6% proficient in literacy.

Northside High School, which was closed in 2016, also could get new life but not as a new school.

Carnes Elementary School closed in 2017 and has been vacant since.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

A group called Urban Renaissance Inc. wants to buy the building in North Memphis and provide free space to community groups and small businesses.

“It’s a great building and a great neighborhood,” said Travis Green, leader of Urban Renaissance. “The neighborhood has been disinvested since the 1970s. We want to activate the space.”

The district will likely offer Urban Renaissance a short-term lease to get started, pending board approval at its next meeting, in part to avoid the vandalism Carnes Elementary and other closed schools have experienced. Shelby County Schools has been using the building to prepare lunches but will relocate those services to a new facility in October.

District leaders will conduct an appraisal of the building and then list it for sale, Michelle Stuart,  the district’s director of facility planning and property management, said.

Board member Kevin Woods said this was the first bid the district has received to revitalize Northside since it closed.

“If we only have one option, we have to see them as partners,” Woods said. “We can’t have blight in that community.”