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Proposals would force some students into different schools

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By Tim McCarthy

Proposals to alleviate overcrowded conditions at Anderson County School Middle School and reconfigure student populations at the county elementary schools will be heard during a community forum Dec. 10.

Two plans formulated by the Anderson County Board of Education and the District Boundary Committee will be presented for public discussion in the auditorium at Anderson County High School beginning at 6 p.m.

The most comprehensive plan establishes a new fifth- and sixth-grade center at the Saffell Street Elementary School building, with all elementary students attending either Robert B. Turner or Emma B. Ward schools. This proposal would reduce enrollment at the middle school by eliminating one grade level and maintain an equal number of students at the two elementary schools. Currently there is a disparity in student populations at the three elementary schools, with enrollment so low at Turner Elementary a teaching position would be eliminated if no changes were made.

A second proposal redistributes elementary students among Saffell, Turner and Ward schools by redrawing district lines. This proposal does not address crowded conditions at middle school.

Under this plan new district lines bordered by yet-to-be-determined county roads would identify which school elementary students would attend.

The area for Turner Elementary would be expanded to increase that school's enrollment. Some random, or lottery, assignments would continue for city residents.

"I'm for whatever plan is best for the students and has the least amount of change," school board Chairperson Steve Higgins said. "If we have to just redraw the lines for the elementary schools and live with being overcrowded at the middle school for a while, we'll just have to make it work."

"This is the most complicated issue I've seen in my six years on the board," he added.

School board member Sandra Whitaker emphasized the need to be proactive.

"We don't want to do all this and have to come back next year and do it all over again. We need a long-term solution and not just a band-aid. We need to make sure we have years of growth in the schools," Whitaker said. "It will be painful in the beginning, whatever we do. Nobody likes change. But the kids will be fine. It's the parents and the teachers that will be most upset."

School Superintendent Kim Shaw and Director of Student Services Margo Whisman have visited each school that would be impacted by the changes to discuss the proposals with teachers and staff.

"We wanted to make sure they heard from us that we are not considering these changes to cut positions or reduce staff," Shaw said.

Whisman said teachers from the schools had mixed reactions to the plans, with most worried about interrupting the progress being made in meeting testing goals, and breaking up teams that have been working well together.

Word of the proposed changes has caused much discussion among some parents, particularly those with children at Saffell. A letter from Christy Frankum, president of the school's PTO, written on behalf of the Saffell Street PTO Officers was sent home with the children Monday.

The letter outlined the proposals to be presented at the public forum and urged Saffell Street Elementary School parents to attend as a show of protest against establishing the fifth- and sixth-grade center at the school. In the letter, parents were encouraged to attend a Dec. 17 school board meeting when a decision could be finalized. A handout was also being circulated outside Saffell on Friday with the same message.

Impact on the state's mandate for school improvement on the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) was a big concern of the committee members. Each school has developed and begun to incorporate intensive action plans to meet the mandated goals of having all students in the county test at a proficient level by 2014.

"The teachers are worried that moving teams (of teachers) will affect all the work that has been done with the comprehensive initiatives put in place to bring up test scores," Whisman said.

"The fifth grade teachers were all excited about the possibility of a fifth- and sixth-grade center," Whisman added. "They were excited about the possibility of them all being in the same building and helping each other."

If the fifth- and sixth-grade center is established, the new school would not have its own baseline and goals for CATS testing because the state has no provision for a class configurations of this type. Scores from fifth grade testing would be included with the elementary school results, and sixth grade scores would be included with either the middle school or elementary schools, as either option is acceptable to the state. Each elementary school would not have individual baselines and goals, but would use district averages for two years. This issue was of particular concern to the school principals and the committee.

"No matter what changes are made," Shaw insisted, "we are going to meet the goals, no matter what. Each school will be expected to perform at a 100 percent level. That's all there is to it."

Establishing a new center for fifth and six grades poses creates new problems for the school system. Grants of approximately $70,000 will be lost because Saffell would no longer be an elementary school. Grants are awarded to individual schools rather than programs, so if a school is eliminated the grant ends.

Logistical changes in transitioning Saffell as the site for the new center exist as well. Equipping classrooms with bigger desks in rooms designed for elementary students was an initial concern of the board, but after a tour of the building during last Wednesday night's work session, those questions were resolved.

"There's more room in some of the classes here than we have," middle school Principal Steve Karsner said. "You have more bathrooms here than we have, more storage areas. Some of my teachers would love to have this space."

Saffell Street Principal Derek Shouse agreed that, with just a few changes, his school would work as the site for the new center.

"We have enough classrooms. If we are fully staffed with 12 teachers, the rooms will work because there would only be 24 to 25 students in each class instead of 30 or 32," Shouse said. "Our cafeteria space is OK, the bathrooms will be OK with maybe just a few changes. We'd have to do something about lockers, but it would work."

Shaw suggested installing hooks in the classrooms and providing students with backpacks as an alternative to installing lockers.

Other areas of concerns with the establishment of the fifth- and sixth-grade center include special education programs and funding, transportation logistics, changes to the library, the impact on academic and athletic team competitions and the level of participation in other extracurricular activities.

The second proposal of redistributing students among the three elementary schools does not create as many issues, but does not address crowded conditions at the middle school and is likely to be just as controversial.

"Some parents are probably not going to like this change, either, because some of their students are going to be attending a different school," Shaw said.

By redrawing district lines for the three schools, teaching positions at Turner Elementary would be protected because enrollment numbers would be equal. This proposal does not address enrollment issues at the middle school and does not account for growth at the elementary grade levels.

Testing scores would not be impacted as much, although new baselines would need to be recalculated for each school because of the new population numbers.

The timeline for any change is "sooner, rather than later," according to Shaw. "We hope to get this done by early January."

A sign-in sheet will be provided for those who wish to speak at the public forum. Comments will be limited to two minutes for each person.