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Parents learn about proposed school changes

A presentation of a potential restructuring plan for Albemarle elementary schools attracted around 125 parents and students to the E.E. Waddell Community Center Monday night.

“This is an informational meeting only,” East Albemarle Elementary School Principal Jonathan Brooks said prior to the presentation. “We are presenting the basics of the proposal so that you can make an informed decision.”

Brooks, who presented the proposal along with Central Elementary Principal Melissa Smith, asked those in the audience to indicate the school with which they were associated. A show of hands indicated the audience was split almost equally between East Albemarle and Central.

A visual presentation, which will be made available for public access on the Central and East Albemarle websites, followed.

The option of a “tiered” schools concept would change the grade levels housed at the two schools, both of which currently are structured as K-5 schools.

Under the proposal, East Albemarle would become a K-1 (primary) school, and a 2-5 (elementary) school would be established at the Central campus. Central would also house the exceptional children’s (EC) program.

If the plan were implemented, East Albemarle would be projected to serve 302 students, 36 fewer than are currently enrolled. Central’s enrollment would increase to 596, an addition of 38 students. These enrollment levels would create seven to eight classes at each grade level in each school.

A number of expected benefits of reorganization were listed. These included creation of an easier transition for students from elementary to middle to high school, since all Albemarle students within a given grade would pass through the system under the same roof.

Reorganization would also provide a resolution to the current lack of K-1 space at the multi-story Central Elementary facility, since classrooms in grades K-3, by state law, must be located on the ground floor.

Other possible benefits included the building of a sense of community, reduction of transfers, better opportunities for collaborative planning by teachers and the potential for increased resources to meet student needs.

Negatives of reorganization were also considered. These included siblings being split between schools, which would operate on staggered start times. Shared buses would require one school begin classes at 7:30 a.m. and the other at 7:55 a.m.

Matters such as staff discontent and student management or discipline were also discussed.

“There are deep emotional connections by some faculty members who have worked at a given school for a long period,” said Brooks, “and reorganization would require that some teachers change schools.”

Smith and Brooks completed the presentation with a wish list that would be requested from the Stanly County School Board should reorganization move forward.

Items on the list included an assistant principal and a school resource officer who would split time between the two schools. Currently, one school resource officer is split between all four Albemarle schools.

Other wish list items included full-time arts, music and physical education teachers (currently teachers in these subjects are split between several schools), as well as employment of an EC compliance specialist at Central.

During the presentation, a survey was distributed and those in attendance were encouraged to put in writing any questions or clarifications regarding the proposal. The written questions were collected and addressed by Brooks and Smith.

The first inquiry of the two principals was whether they had been presented any “hard data” to support such a reorganization.

“No actual data has been presented to me,” said Brooks, who said information he has received “has been anecdotal.”

Regarding the upcoming state mandate that K-3 classes consist of no more than 19 students, a question was presented as to why some Albemarle school classes in that grade range are larger.

“When the law was passed, school systems were given the opportunity to phase this in,” Brooks said. “At this time, the 19-student limit is based on the average class size for the school system.”

In response to a question as to whether such reorganization is being considered for other parts of the county, Brooks said “not yet,” but added in areas where two K-5 schools are in close proximity, reorganization could be a future consideration.

A number of questions could not be answered, pending further information or policy decisions by the school board. These included whether inclusion and mainstreaming of EC students could be accomplished if the entire EC program was at Central, and why the reorganization was being considered in Albemarle and not in the rest of the county.

Opinions gathered from a number of those present ranged from skepticism to opposition.

“I’m against this,” Bonnie Morton, parent of an East Albemarle student, said. “If I had wanted my child at Central, we would have moved into the Central district.”

Carla Poplin, parent of an EC student, expressed concern with the proposal to relocate all EC classes to Central.

“The arrangement as presented would make immersion, inclusion and mainstreaming for EC students almost impossible,” she said.

Sylvia Kneller, grandparent of an East Albemarle student, called the plan “fragmented.”

“The time differences between the school schedules would burden a family with more than one child,” she said.

According to Brooks and Smith, the questions gathered at the meeting as well as survey results will be compiled and relayed to the superintendent and school board, and the two principals will report the findings at an upcoming special called meeting of the board. Additional public input sessions and public hearings would also be required before any decision is finalized, said Brooks.

“The school board will meet the first Tuesday of April, and hopefully a decision will have been made by then,” said Brooks, “but if not, it will absolutely be made by the May meeting.”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.