Visiting Northside High School in Shelby, Mississippi today, it’s hard to see why there would be any anger about the consolidation of what was formerly Broadstreet High School with John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in neighboring Mound Bayou. Sure, the decision resulted in JFK’s closing, but JFK had only 300 students, and Broadstreet had less than 200. Since Broadstreet had a bigger facility, consolidation seemed like a logical solution for a school district struggling with a declining population, a limited teacher pool, poor academic performance (though JFK often tested at higher levels), and a lack of state funding.
Up until consolidation in 2017, the schools had been long-time rivals, duking it out in football, track, and basketball and each claiming to have better test scores. But any resentment seems to have faded quickly. The men’s track team won a state championship in its first year and the women’s track team came up a close second. This year, the football team has gone 10-0, scoring over 300 points and allowing only 20. It’s led many to call the newly formed Northside Gators a “superteam”.
We had the chance to talk to the football coach, Tavaris Johnson. He’s well known in Mississippi, where football, particularly high school football, is king. Before coming to Northside last year, Johnson turned around a previously failing academic school, making sure his players were an example on the field and in the classroom. Talking to him, you can see why they would listen. He’s a compelling character, about 6’1”, with a deep gravely voice, and a weathered but firm and serious face. When he speaks, he speaks directly to you and you listen. His players did. At that last school, within a few years, they won 3 state championships in a row and went from an academic rating of F to B. It’s a seductive story. An inspiring leader using sports to turn a failing community and team around. It’s one we’ve been fed since we were young. But it’s not the whole story.
Later that day, we met up with two kids who’d attended JFK but left the school district when they heard it would close, choosing to attend schools in neighboring Cleveland rather than go to Northside. Callum and Kiera, both seniors, met us outside what used to be JFK. Though the grounds were clean, it looked deserted, with just a few cars in the large parking lot originally intended to accommodate the cars of students, teachers, faculty, and school buses. The JFK signs had all been stripped from the building, except for a stone one too heavy to be removed, dedicated by the class of ’92.
As we walked around the school, Callum and Kiera pointed out vacant classrooms, especially English which had been their favorite. They’re both on the smaller side, Callum standing at around 5’7” and Keira a bit shorter. When we asked them what they did at school and if they played any sports, they told us that they were mostly academic.
As we turned a corner, they slowed. A bus had just arrived, dropping off the football players from Mound Bayou after practice. As the players got off the bus and started to head home, I recognized Coach Johnson walking over to a car that was pulling into the lot. Beside him stood two younger men, both fit and a bit taller than him. When I said hello, he introduced me to his two sons, one who is a player and one who had just become his assistant coach. When I asked his sons whether they cared about the closing of the high school, they looked around dismissively and said no. “It’s just Northside now, you know. It doesn’t really matter. We gotta move forward.” I nodded in agreement.
When I turned back to meet Callum and Kiera, who were waiting for me, I felt uneasy. I’d just dismissed them to go talk to Coach and his sons. It was an awkward juxtaposition, a cliché. The football players vs. the academics. As we continued our walk and arrived at the front of the school, where students would’ve arrived every day, Callum pointed out what I was missing.
“It’s the academics that mostly left.” He explained that it was the academics who cared most about the spirit and history of Mound Bayou, a town founded by ex-slaves and sustained by education as a means of self-sufficiency for over 100 years. With the loss of JFK, they lost that heart, that history, without many even noticing. They’d fallen into the same trap I had. Looking at the “superteam,” seeing the potential for change, seeing it in the well packaged, easily digestible image: the coach with a winning history, striving for a state championship with his two sons. But in a place where most businesses seem to be on their way out as the population ages and more people leave for greater opportunities elsewhere, that same story doesn’t seem like enough. People like Callum and Kiera recognize that. It’s the uniqueness — the history of the town — that is it’s hope. But with the high school gone, that hope may be fading too.