Bishop Byrne Middle and High School, an institution in Memphis for more than four decades, will close at the end of this school year.
The Memphis-diocese high school at 1475 E. Shelby Drive has suffered dwindling enrollment for years. It has about 170 students in grades 7-12. The senior class has fewer than 35 students.
Underclassmen will be encouraged to transfer to Memphis Catholic Middle and High School, where the diocese will be investing in programs and technology, said Catholic Schools Supt. Janet Donato.
“Our focused investments will create a stronger, more vibrant, more competitive Memphis Catholic and will pay far greater dividends for our students …” she said in afternoon news conference.
“We have to do what is best for our students, our system and community in the long run,” Donato said.
The building likely will be offered for sale, although Donato said no decision had been made.
Faculty were told of the closing Thursday afternoon. Letters have gone out to the school’s families. Diocesan staff will be at Bishop Byrne Friday morning to answer questions.
All staff and teaching positions (expect the principal’s job) at Memphis Catholic will be opened for applications for the coming school year.
“The staff has been encouraged to apply to Memphis Catholic and other Catholic schools,” Donato said. “I have been with two Catholic schools that closed. We always tried to help the staff if they wanted to stay with us. …. We extend our hand as much as we can.”
Bishop Byrne opened in 1965 as a diocesan high school, serving grades 9-12. It added 7th and 8th graders from nearby St. Paul’s parish school later to increase enrollment at the high school, Donato said.
Local meteorologist Ron Childers graduated in 1981. Its most famous graduate is likely Archbishop Peter Sartain, Class of 1970, now head of the Seattle archdiocese.
Enrollment at Memphis Catholic has also dwindled. Today the school on McLean in Midtown serves 183 students in grades 7-12, making it only marginally larger than Bishop Byrne.
The difference, Donato said, is the repair needed at Bishop Byrne.
“We would have to spend a lot on bricks and mortar, and we would rather spend it on the students,” she said.
The goal is to increase enrollment at Memphis Catholic by up to 50 percent to 300 students, and pair the school with a college so students may more easily take college-level classes.
Last year, 174 Catholic schools around the nation either closed or consolidated, continuing nearly a decade of shrinkage for diocesan or parish-run schools.
Memphis Catholic and Bishop Byrne symbolize the challenges. In 2001, Memphis Catholic had nearly 320 students and about 40 percent of the student body was Catholic. The school was poised to grow as eight Jubliee Schools, also in the inner city, sprang back to life through the gift of a handful of anonymous donors.
When the economy faltered in late 2007, the plans withered, largely because families could not afford private school tuition.
Today, the majority of the student body in both Memphis Catholic and Bishop Byrne is African-American and non-Catholic. At Memphis Catholic, students commute from 30 ZIP codes.
In 2006, before the recession, Memphis Catholic introduced Education that Works, giving high school students a chance to work five days a month for an approved corporate partner. The partner deposits $5,000 a year in the school’s 501c account. The money covers more than 60 percent of the student’s $8,200 annual tuition.
The infusion stabilized enrollment and broadened the school’s connections to the community. Nearly 70 companies participate.
Students who transfer from Bishop Byrne will be expected to participate, said principal Nick Green.