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Decatur Superintendent hopes to have decision on elementary schools before summer

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Decatur Superintendent hopes to have decision on elementary schools before summer

The Decatur School Board meets on Jan. 12, 2016. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

The Decatur School Board meets on Jan. 12, 2016. File Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

If there’s one constant in education, it’s that parents dislike change, particularly changes that affect where their children go to school.

Almost three years after City Schools of Decatur reopened Westchester Elementary to handle enrollment growth, the School Board is looking at a system-wide reconfiguration of its elementary schools. While Oakhurst Elementary lost some students as a result of reopening Westchester, all of CSD’s elementary schools could be affected by the proposals the board is considering.

Superintendent David Dude hopes the School Board will come to its decision before the summer break.

“If we can have a decision before school is out, that would be great,” Dude said.

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But the School Board must weigh competing interests and reaching a decision that pleases everyone will be unlikely.

The first proposal is Option 1A, which proposes turning College Heights, Clairemont, Glennwood, Winnona Park and Westchester into K-2 schools. Fifth Avenue, Oakhurst, and the new school would become 3-5 grade schools. Option 1B is similar, but changes the 3-5 schools to be Fifth Avenue, Glennwood, and the new school. Option 2, building a new 4-5 academy would be the most straightforward approach.

All of the plans call for converting College Heights from an early learning center to an elementary school. In all options, CSD would build a new early learning center at the Avondale MARTA station, which is being converted into a mixed-use transit-oriented development.

At first glance, building the new 4-5 looks like the option that will ruffle the fewest feathers. But Dude said that option could leave CSD in need of additional space for elementary school students.

“If we do nothing but build a 4/5, I am concerned about the K-3 capacities of our buildings and where we end up putting those students,” he said.

Changing the current configuration of the elementary schools will be the more contentious path for CSD. There was a large turn out at a public input meeting held earlier this month, and the school system has already received some push back from parents of Glennwood on Option 1B, which would make Glennwood a 3-5 school. While the other plans list challenges for each proposal, there were no challenges listed for Option 1B.

Sarah Jones, a Glennwood parent, said many parents at the school were caught off guard by the meeting and she had to encourage people attend at the last minute. Oakhurst Elementary, on the other hand, was prepared and had a larger presence. She said the lack of challenges for Option 1B upset many parents, who worried it would influence how people respond to a system-wide survey about the proposed changes.

Anya Robinson has two children attending Glennwood currently. She said the presentation at the input meeting “did not fairly represent all the options, yet asked the community to take a survey based on this information.”

“This was misleading and inconsistent, as several of the challenges for options 1A  and 2 are similar challenges for 1B,” she said. “We would like the challenges for 1B to be provided to all as soon as possible so that [city of Decatur] residents can take this information into account when completing the survey.”

Jones said some Glennwood parents interpreted the presentation as CSD officials endorsing option 1B.

Dude attended a follow-up meeting with Glennwood and Jones said it went a long way to addressing some of the parents’ concerns. She said many parents left the first meeting convinced that there were only three options on the table, but at the follow-up Dude emphasized that there are other options that could be considered as well.

“These are not the only three options,” Jones said. “People can throw out any option we want inside the survey. It’s not a vote. They’re strong in saying that it’s a survey and the reason they’re saying that is they want the comments more than anything.”

A different plan might work for Glennwood, but it could create a new set of concerns for different schools. An alternate idea that’s been suggested is turning Clairemont Elementary into a 3-5. A steering committee made up of representatives throughout the district will weigh all of options.

“The steering committee will take that into consideration,” Dude said. “My guess is what they will want to weigh more options.”

Dude said the school system has some flexibility. There will be a new school on CSD-owned property on Talley Street and it will most likely be a 3-5 or a 4-5.

“We already have the architect on board,” Dude said. “They have started. A 3-5 and 4-5 look identical. It’s the exact same facility.”

When it’s all said and done, the School Board’s decision probaby won’t be welcomed by everyone, much as it was with the Westchester redistricting.

But people do adapt to change.

Almost three years out, Westchester has built a strong school community that holds fundraisers and advocates for safety improvements on Scott Boulevard, which runs in front of the school.

The contentious debate in CSD won’t end with the new  elementary school reconfiguration. Once that’s settled, the next discussion will be about redistricting students to new schools when they open.

Dude said the important thing to remember is when the dust settles, parents will still have their children enrolled at a school in the city of Decatur, one of the highest performing school districts in the state.

“One of the reasons we engage in this discussion this early is so there’s time so people will know what’s going to happen several years out,” Dude said. “Next year we’ll start the discussion of boundaries. Whatever decision is made, families have time to adjust to whatever that decision is. We are very lucky. No matter where your child goes to school they’re going to get a fantastic education, and it’s not that way in every school district.”

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