There is no malice or lack of preparation associated with this process. There is no rush to act, nor is there an absence of fact prompting action. It is proposed that the board move to close three small, low performing schools. The schools are as follows: Parrish High, Sipsey Junior High, and T.S. Boyd Junior High schools.
The reasons are both economic and educational. The projected economic benefit is substantial, but the potential educational benefit is exponential. Uncorrectable, low enrollment issues that exist in these three locations serve to create an economic strain on the fiscal health of the entire system. Compounding this problem is the fact that at this point in time, we are implementing a new state curriculum and accountability model that demands added resources.
We are currently engineering an educational transformation through overhauling our curriculum and adding new opportunities and programs for our students. The stakes are higher than ever before because students are soon to be held to a higher standard. Coupled with the obvious positive economic ramifications at the system level, the potential achievement benefit for the students involved serves to make these aforementioned actions both necessary and urgent.
We have the utmost respect for the people in these communities. We respect the history and the tradition of these three schools. Most importantly, we care about improving the educational process for the students within them. These students have systematically been left behind.
Parrish High has a current enrollment of 224 students in grades 7-12. There are only 158 students in grades 9-12, with numbers for an entire grade being synonymous with those one would find in a biology class a few miles down the road. Sipsey has an enrollment of 240 students in grades K-8, with 17 students in the entire second and fourth grades. The seventh grade at Sipsey has 15 students.
T.S. Boyd has 193 students in grades K-8. The student numbers per grade are very low. There are 10 students in the entire second grade and 12 in the third. This state has cut education spending 21.8 percent since 2008, while operational costs have continued to rise. We simply can’t afford to maintain schools this small and effectively implement the new, more rigorous standards.
I will not elaborate on low test scores — a lack of extracurricular opportunity, limited course offerings, time spent in school improvement status, or the decline of a given community. I would rather concentrate on a better tomorrow. I would choose to spend my time discussing the potential increase of student achievement and educational opportunity that could be made available not only to the 657 students directly affected, but the other 7,300 as well. To afford a grade of 40, the system must endure a class of 40. We can’t have one without the other, and neither of the two circumstances is optimal.
The truth is that these schools have been neglected for many years. They have been systematically cut off from proper resources and needed facility improvements. As a result of this, these tough decisions are no longer a choice between alternatives. They have become the formulation of choices, not just for the three schools but for the other 17 school plants as well. Our proposed action is without question in the long-term best interest of the children most affected. They are who stand to gain the most, for they have been given the least.
However, this decision benefits everyone. It is essential for us to be able to transform our entire school system’s effectiveness. That is important to us because we believe this type transformation has the potential to transform student achievement. As a part of a plan to transform the educational process in East Walker County, the Walker County Board of Education used its hard earned fiscal solvency to secure $12 million to construct a much-needed facility in Sumiton. (It should be pointed out that it was tough decisions such as these that led to the aforementioned fiscal solvency).
The facility has a capacity of over 900 students in grades K-4. It was specifically designed to be able to house the K-4 students from all three elementary and junior high schools in the area. The students in grades 5-8 would be housed in the current facility. This configuration was no hidden fact. Leaders of all three East Walker County communities voiced their opinions, which included both commendation and concern. This point is being made to emphasize that the accusation of the board rushing to make a decision is inaccurate.
What is true is that this facility was designed to provide more opportunity and better resources for not only the children in Sumiton but those in Sipsey and Boyd as well. The yearly expense of the new debt to complete this facility is around $500,000. We currently have a 1.2-month operating reserve and operate on a razor thin budget. We are required by law to have a one-month reserve.
When we borrowed the money, we strategically delayed the payment in order to give us time to make the necessary adjustments. The time has come to follow through with the next step in the planning process. Parrish has the same demographic as the other two schools with many similarities, including similar solutions, nearby facilities capable of housing the population and providing the pertinent academic needs. There will be an initial sense of loss for these students, but kids are resilient. That is expected to be short-lived because of what these students will gain.
In East Walker County, the new facility will be able to withstand a tornado, and has enough room to put everyone in the building under a bolted down and concrete reinforced roof. The classes will not be large as falsely reported. We will make sure the teacher-to-student ratio is exactly what the state recommends for each grade level. We will be able to offer beginning band, the arts, middle school football, softball and baseball. We envision extracurricular activities such as: theatre, chorus and dance. We intend on offering Algebra I in the eighth grade and foreign language in kindergarten. None of these things have been available to the students of Sipsey and Boyd. If it ever becomes overcrowded because the rest of East Walker County wants to attend, we will add on to it. We will have the resources to do so.
For Parrish, the benefits are similar. When a school is subsidized with local dollars for local units to offer the basics, it is impossible to implement additional course work. There are six grade levels with two teachers per grade. There is no way to offer Pre-AP and AP courses.
Students in grades 7-12 walk the same halls. This is not an optimal grade configuration. Twelve- and 13-year-old students do not need to be exposed to 18-year-old topics of conversation.
They also should not be forced to play on a high school team because there is no middle school team or forced to be in one class on a block schedule for one hour and 36 minutes. They should not be in danger of their football team folding during the season for lack of participation, and a junior high program is necessary for proper development.
The only electives for all of these students are agriscience and physical education. There are no advanced computer courses, no home economics, and no additional math or science electives offered. It should be noted that because of our budgetary constraints, none of our high schools have what they soon will if we proceed with our plan.
Last year, 51 percent of students attending Parrish High in grades 10-12 lacked a course needed for graduation. That is our fault, and we must do better. In years past, we have identified students taking three physical education classes and one core course in a semester. Something is wrong when that has to occur. In 2013 the graduation rate at Parrish dropped 10 percent. For every student that shines, there are several more that we could save with more resources.
We can offer more, but we have to make this tough decision to do so. The operational costs are too high to send additional personnel to a place that the state will not pay for the units because there are not enough students present to support them. Last year, the water bill alone at Parrish High School was $58,000.
There are two new high schools within seven miles of Parrish. There is plenty of room at Oakman, arguably one of the top academic institutions for its size in the state. Cordova has room as well. The school was built to hold 640 students. There are only 488 attending. Cordova is on the cutting edge and currently out front of the county in AP and Pre-AP course offerings with half the student population taking advantage of them.
Both of these two schools have good extracurricular activities and both schools have extended a welcome to all students in Parrish who wish to come. Again, if the walls begin to swell in either place because all this comes to fruition, we will knock them out and add on.
I realize that change is difficult. I respect and submit to the fact that some will not agree and many dislike the proposed changes. Some will dislike all who were involved with their coming to pass should they do so. However, I know what stands to be gained. It would be for the greater good and in the best interest of those involved.
I know that the short-term effects will be difficult for some to say the least. For any and all of the present negative aspects that must first be felt before the realization of any future benefit, I sincerely apologize. However, I am committed to the future advancement of your children. I am committed to the advancement of this system as a whole, and that duty supersedes any personal consideration. I love my job, but I care more about doing it than keeping it.
I had a conversation Tuesday with Ricky Buzbee, the person most vocally against the closing of Sipsey Junior High School. In fact, he is without question the most vocal of any one person against the proposed closing of any of the schools. It was a good conversation, and I appreciated it very much.
Although we agreed to disagree, he said that if indeed I was able to provide all of the things I said I would be able to provide for the kids of Sipsey, including his grandchildren, he could understand it. He told me that in four years, he would come back, we would have another conversation, and he was going to hold me accountable to all I told him would be offered to those students. You do that Ricky, just you do that.
Jason Adkins is superintendent of Walker County Schools.