By Josh Troy
Heidelberg Elementary School will close at the end of the 2022-23 academic year due to a steady decline in enrollment in the Clarksdale Municipal School District. Superintendent Dr. Toya Matthews explained the decision to parents and other community members during a Wednesday night town hall meeting in the Clarksdale High School gym. Matthews said the CMSD’s enrollment has decreased by 814 students since 2016. “Our enrollment has declined the past eight years,” she said, “it’s actually been longer than that, but I just did the past eight years.”
Matthews said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula means school districts receive funding for each enrolled child. She added that when the district’s enrollment declines, it loses funding. “We can’t operate in the same fashion where we’re constantly losing students keeping the same number of schools open, performing and doing the same things with fewer students, with less money,” she said. Matthews said that at one time, Clarksdale’s population was at an estimated 35,000, which has decreased to approximately 15,000, leading to lower enrollment in the district.
The CMSD’s loss of students led to the decision to close Heidelberg. “This year will be the last year of Heidelberg Elementary being open,” Matthews said. Booker T. Washington, George H. Oliver, and Kirkpatrick Health & Medical Science Magnet will be the elementary schools remaining in the CMSD. Matthews said the CMSD had been under a desegregation order since the late 1960s. However, she said the order was recently removed because the district no longer suffers from the effects of segregation. Since the CMSD is not under a desegregation order, officials did not have to petition the courts to close Heidelberg.
Matthews said that when the CMSD closed Myrtle Hall IV Elementary School and went to a magnet school theme, it had to petition the courts because it was under a desegregation order at the time. “That’s no more,” she said. “The district has unitary status,” Matthews said she does not want the student-to-teacher ratio to increase too much.
“You can have 27 students in one classroom based on certain configurations,” she said. “You can have up to 33 if it’s departmentalized. However, we don’t want to keep a lot of kids in classes. But we have too many classes right now and very low enrollment in those elementary schools.”
Matthews said Oakhurst Intermediate School for fifth and sixth graders and WA Higgins Middle School for seventh and eighth graders have full enrollment. She said there could be more students at JW Stampley 9th Grade Academy and enrollment at Clarksdale High School has decreased. Matthews noted that the high school enrollment was more than 900 students when CMSD board member Dr. Manika Kemp was the principal, and Kemp was at the town hall meeting. “This building can hold a lot of students, but you want to have class sizes that are not so huge that learning cannot take place in a meaningful way,” she said.
Matthews said decisions need to be made about buildings in the district that are not in good condition, as repairs would cost a lot of money. She acknowledged that not everyone would agree with the decision to close Heidelberg. “I know it’s not one that’s going to be considered favorable because I’m a product of Heidelberg,” she said. “I went to Kirkpatrick, and I went to a lot of the schools. However, it’s about making sure that we are financially fit to serve the students in a meaningful way.”
“When March Madness Becomes a Success” in the CMSD’s March Attendance Matters campaign, Matthews said the goal is to have the student attendance rate at 95% or more each day. She added that students need to be at school every day for at least 63% of the day. “That’s a battle for us,” she said. Matthews said 51.97% of the students have “chronic absenteeism,” which means they have missed at least 10% of the number of days they are enrolled during the school year for any reason. CMSD students who have chronic absenteeism have missed 18 or more days.
Matthews said the state’s chronic absenteeism rate is at 28%. “We have an issue,” she said. “We’re going to work to solve those issues as best as we can. We have a great team of social workers. Our counselors and principals are doing their best to talk to parents, but we still need community support to urge our children to attend school.” Matthews said students who miss school have to make up the work.
Goal to raise MDE grade to C
The CMSD has received a failing grade from the Mississippi Department of Education for several years, but Matthews is looking to do something about that. “The goal for the district is a C,” she said. “I can tell you that we look at the data every nine weeks.” As the CMSD heads into spring break, Matthews said she will look at data from the standardized tests and provide a report to her bosses at the upcoming board meeting.
“We’ve been an F too long,” she said. “What we want to avoid is anybody coming to take over our district to do something we have the ability to do ourselves. We have the ability. Our children are no worse or better than anyone else, and we have to look at the data meaningfully and make sure that our students and teachers understand the data.” Matthews said it will take the whole community and parental support to increase the CMSD’s grade with the MDE. “We didn’t become an F overnight, and it’s going to take us some time, and I ask that you please come to us in this fashion, email or call, and let us know,” she said.
Matthews said the CMSD will continue to celebrate the students’ growth. The district recently held a ceremony for students who scored proficient or advanced on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program test. “We’re proud of the work that we’re doing,” Matthews said. “We just need more people to understand what we’re doing and work with us.”
Matthews encouraged parents to communicate directly with her whenever there is a problem. As an example, she brought Saundra Hutchens in front of the audience. Hutchens is the mother of Madison Hutchens, an Oakhurst sixth grader who received an award when MAEP test scores were celebrated. Hutchens told Matthews that the word “achievement” was misspelled on the award.
Matthews said she appreciated Hutchens approaching her in the way she did and not posting about it on social media. She added that every student whose certificate had a misspelled word would receive a new award. Matthews said the district has had different special days, and students and teachers wore college shirts for one special day.
Matthews wore a Tougaloo College shirt for where she went to school, and Clarksdale High School Principal Herbert Smith wore a Delta State University shirt for where he went to school. “Each school has different things they’re doing to incentivize students to come,” Matthews said. “We are going to be college ready, and we are going to celebrate any college.” The CMSD also had “team spirit” and Wildcat pride” days. Matthews said Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds have enabled the CMSD to do several projects. She specifically said ESSER funds had helped the district to make improvements to the high school air conditioning system.