For the first time, an all-optional high school is being established in Memphis under Shelby County Schools’ competitive academic program geared toward students with unique interests and aptitudes.
East High School, open since 1948 and one of the city’s most iconic schools, is officially on the list of optional programs being promoted this month as the district prepares to receive applications beginning on Jan. 27.
Starting with the incoming freshman class, the school will shift this fall to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. The transportation aspect is unique and seeks to prepare workers to feed the growing transportation and logistics industries in Memphis, home to distribution powerhouse FedEx and several trucking companies.
East’s T-STEM program is among 46 programs being promoted Sunday afternoon during the district’s annual optional fair at the University of Memphis. Interested families also are invited to open houses later this month, including one at East on Jan. 18.
The high school’s conversion comes despite pushback from many alumni and supporters concerned that neighborhood students will be bused elsewhere if they don’t apply or get accepted into the optional program.
District leaders insist that East must be reinvented if it’s to stay open. In recent decades, the school’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000 students. And last spring, East made the list of the state’s 10 percent of lowest-performing schools, making it potentially vulnerable to state intervention.
The Shelby County Board of Education did not vote on the conversion. Heidi Ramirez, the district’s chief of academics, said Friday that no vote is required since the change will not include a rezoning of students.
Ramirez and other district leaders have been meeting with East families and alumni in recent months and working through issues related to the redesign — not the least of which is what will happen to the school’s athletic programs. Sports teams have long been a source of pride for East and its midtown neighborhood. Just last fall, the school’s football team brought home a state championship title. Ramirez said the new all-optional school will continue to offer the same athletic programs for boys and girls.
Ramirez said the school system soon will conduct a survey to seek input from current and potential East parents and students about additional programs or activities desired.
District leaders rolled out the new plan for East in October, and Ramirez said they’re staying on track with the design. She said organizations and businesses continue to express an interest in partnering with the school.
“We want the design of the school to reflect a meaningful integration of technology,” Ramirez said. “We want this to look more like a space for project-based learning.”
The high school currently has an optional engineering program but with only 35 students — far insufficient to re-anchor the massive school.
Ken Welch, who has spearheaded East’s online alumni page for two decades, is among East supporters who have reluctantly accepted the change.
“I want people to be able to walk to their school,” Welch said. “It fosters neighborhood cohesiveness, but I’m torn in this case. The administration makes a compelling argument that the school needs more students.”