Nichols School Campaign
Nichols Elementary School in East Biloxi, Mississippi was not just the highest performing school in the Biloxi public school system, but also in the state. It even won a prestigious 2010 national Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education. That same year, it was also home to Mississippi’s teacher of the year and Biloxi’s “Parent of the Year.” These achievements are especially noteworthy, given that Nichols served an African-American and Vietnamese community with one of the highest poverty levels in the state.
Additionally, Nichols was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, and as the school librarian said,“in spite of traumatized students and faculty who had suffered great personal, psychological and emotional distress, our teachers were able to maintain high standards of instruction.”
One can only imagine how proud the community was of Nichols school and its achievements. So, imagine the surprise in April 2010, when word got out that the school board was closing the school. Many residents, advocates and influential leaders learned of the school closing from the newspaper, after the decision was made.
Usually when a district closes a school, it is because of low performance or because the facility is falling apart. This was not the case with Nichols, a shiny new school built with $10 million in taxpayer funds. The official argument was decreasing enrollment after Hurricane Katrina - a population decline that applied to the entire district, as families in devastated areas were slow to return. When the school did reopen, enrollment grew steadily every year thereafter. The board also cited budget issues in its decision to close Nichols, however, the school district had a $10 million surplus.
There were other feasible options, rather than closing the iconic school -seen as a strong symbol of the African American community and history in Biloxi. But in making their decision, the school board combined the student bodies of Nichols and Gorenflo schools and ignored their own strategic plan, which included a pledge to keep teacher-pupil ratios at 16 to 1.
Community members and educators quickly came together to form a Save Our Schools Coalition. Rallies were planned and business of the school board members were picketed. The Mississippi Center for Justice joined the coalition in a campaign that combines public education, community action and legal remedies.
The community and Coalition members strongly believe that re-opening Nichols is not only viable, but would be a good decision for the community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invested $35 million to rebuild East Biloxi after the hurricane, including a new 196-unit housing development across the street from Nichols. As the development fills up, parents ask: How are the schools?
A year after the announcement, the Biloxi school superintendent resigned and was replaced by another Mississippi school superintendent whose district also has a star-rated school. Leaders in Biloxi are hopeful that he will understand their pride in Nichols and re-open the conversation. Mississippi Center for Justice continues to work with the coalition and community leaders to get Nichols open once again.