East Biloxi Neighbors Fear Community School Will Close

"It was gorgeous," James Black said as he walked through the halls of Nichols Elementary.

But the beautiful school that Black remembered is now a mess. Nichols Elementary took in eight feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.

"There were some fears about the school opening after Katrina," said Black.

That fear of losing Nichols is growing stronger, despite the fact that crews are busy repairing the storm damage.

"There's been mixed signals," said Black. "We know that the school board has said that it will reopen in January. We're concerned whether that will be true ultimately. Even if it opens in January, will it continue as a school? We're concerned about that."

James Black heads the Save Nichols Coalition. He blames his worries on Biloxi School Superintendent Dr. Paul Tisdale.

"That's what sparked the concern in the first place was his comments about the lack of population in this area," said Black. "So that more or less sparked it. Plus, our distrust about the concern for this community from the administration."

That suspicion goes back to 1999. That was when the school district wanted to consolidate its schools and close Nichols Junior High. The community fought hard and won the battle to bring back Nichols, as an elementary school.

"We're going to open Nichols," said Dr. Paul Tisdale.

Dr. Tisdale says repairs to both Nichols and nearby Gorenflo Elementary are scheduled to be finished by November sixth.

"To some extent I'm surprised, because our board meetings are public meetings and that's been announced that we will be reopening those schools," said Dr. Tisdale. "But I know until things happen, there will be skeptics among us."

However, Dr. Tisdale says there's no guarantee Nichols will stay open. A lot hinges on enrollment trends over the years and the availability of housing in the community.

"There may come a time when we don't need two elementary schools to serve the students in East Biloxi," said Dr. Tisdale. "And if that time comes, we will look at that very carefully."

"There will be children returning," said James Black. "There will be laughter and running around in the street again."

Black is optimistic the neighbors will come back.

"This area is re-birthing," said Black. "The children will return, the parents will return, and this six to seven million dollar school is going to be an anchor into this community and we want it to continue. We need a school here."

Before Katrina, the enrollment at Nichols Elementary was between 290 and 320 students. Dr. Tisdale says if the enrollment drops and stays around 200 over the next few years, that may cause some concern. Again, Nichols Elementary is scheduled to open in January of 2007.