School Board task: where to put the kids?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

No conclusion was reached on how to distribute the children of Lewisburg into the available school buildings at two-hour meeting of the school board's building committee Monday night. It will be discussed again at the full board meeting now scheduled to start at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 19.

Director of Schools Stan Curtis reported that he had held three meetings with the principals of the affected schools, and received plenty of feedback from parents and teachers as well.

"There was no real consensus," Curtis reported, though he said about 85 percent seemed to be in favor of the original idea which is currently being implemented: having grades kindergarten through sixth at all three Lewisburg schools (Westhills, Oak Grove, and Marshall Elementary).

Curtis said "a lot of people" did not want to go the way suggested by Oak Grove principal Dr. Patsey Thomas at the February meeting. Her idea was to have pre-kindergarten through first grade at MES, second and third grades at Westhills, and fourth and fifth at Oak Grove. Sixth grade could be at Oak Grove, or at Lewisburg Middle School.

MES was built for smaller children, but Curtis said a large number of teachers there had told him "we could make this work," referring to going all the way to sixth grade there.

"It's just not an equitable situation," countered chairman Craig Michael, pointing out that the smaller gymnasium at MES could not accommodate team games for the older children. As for reducing class size to make bigger kids fit in the smaller rooms at MES, Michael said that wouldn't be equitable either.

Everyone agreed that the Marshall County school system needs stability.

"The teachers have been through so much turmoil these last five years," said Jackie Abernathy, a former teacher who now works at the Central Office. "It was a terrible situation. I would like to see our teachers have a year when they can just teach school and enjoy the children."

"This is an upset every time it's mentioned," said Westhills principal Sherry Park, referring to the prospect of moving teachers to different schools. If there is a major change in the way the classes are distributed Park said, the teachers will have to spend the summer moving classrooms, instead of preparing for the new Tennessee Diploma Project standards that come into play next school year. "They need stability," she concluded.

Curtis said he would like to get a focus and stay with it. At a recent School Board retreat, Curtis said they talked about the board having a vision and a mission, and relying on the director to come up with strategies for implementing it.

"I have a hard time getting past sticking a round peg in a square hole," said Michael, referring to putting bigger children at MES. He presented a sheet of figures that showed Lewisburg currently has fewer students in grades K-8 than it had in 2001. There are 250 students less at LMS than there were that year, leading him to the conclusion that it has under-utilized capacity.

"A lot of people thought we moved way too fast when we decided to go K-6 (at all three schools)," Michael said. "As I looked at options, to minimize distractions, maybe we should leave Westhills as it is, and move three fifth grades from MES to Oak Grove.

"Whatever we decide, somebody's going to be disrupted and somebody's going to be unhappy," he concluded. "The whole grade configuration and building thing needs a lot more study."

"Everybody brought out some good points," acknowledged Curtis. "My choice would be the K-6, but we need to look at these other options that are floating around. If the board comes up with a decision, I'll implement it for as long as I'm here, but who knows how long that will be. It's a good district, and we'll find the right balance."