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City Schools of Decatur gathers input on a new facilities plan

Decatur

City Schools of Decatur gathers input on a new facilities plan

City Schools of Decatur on Jan. 15 held a meeting to gather input about how to accomdate future growth in the district. In this photo Scott Leopold of Cooperative Strategies speaks to the group assembled at Talley Street Upper Elementary. Photo by Sara Amis
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By Sara Amis, contributor 

City Schools of Decatur on Jan. 15 held the first of two meetings seeking public feedback about facilities planning.

School officials and the public gathered at the recently completed Talley Street Upper Elementary to discuss the district’s future facilities needs.

These meetings are part of a new master planning process that is beginning as the previous long-term plan comes to an end.

Scott Leopold, a partner in Cooperative Strategies, gave a presentation outlining some of the information gathered as part of the planning process. Enrollment growth in the City Schools of Decatur has slowed but not stopped. From a current total enrollment of 5,698, enrollment is projected to continue to grow to an estimated 6.274 in school year 2024-25 and 6,344 by 2029-30.  Winnona Park Elementary and Fifth Avenue Upper Elementary already are operating at or above capacity. By school year 2024-25 both upper elementary schools are expected to be at or above capacity, while Decatur High School enrollment is expected to rise above capacity by 2025-26.

Residents who attended had questions. Several questions focused on the future of the high school. Decatur High School is “landlocked” which makes expansion difficult and there is no easily obtainable suitable location for another high school. Participants were asked to brainstorm alternative ideas to improve efficiency or increase capacity, including renovations, remodeling, or addition of modular classrooms.  were also asked to consider creative uses of existing facilities that could increase capacity, such as a staggered schedule or dedicated teacher planning space to avoid empty classrooms.

Other questions concerned the expansion of early learning programs, including the possibility of offering free or low-cost 0-3 programs for low-income families, and focusing on district use of facilities for performing arts and extra-curricular activities, rather than building these facilities separately for individual schools.

Participants praised the overall approach of the meeting.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so organized,” said Deborah Mitchell, adding that she felt the questions indicated a thoughtful approach to the problems of growth in the district. Mitchell grew up in Decatur and moved back to the area for her grandson to attend school here.

Laura Bollman, an educator, pointed out that growth is not just a problem to be solved, but indicates a healthy school district.

“I think from an education perspective it’s incredibly inspiring. A lot of urban districts aren’t growing, they’re shrinking and have been for decades, so to be in a place where enrollment is growing is really positive in my opinion,” said Bollman.

Bollman was also impressed with what she called the appetite for innovation.

“Repurposing or rethinking traditional spaces so they can have combined or multiple functions, building up instead of always building out, rethinking what it means to be a student, it seems like there’s a lot of appetite to consider that we don’t necessarily need to do things the way we always have,” said Bollman.

John Poelker was the architect for Talley Street Elementary and has three children in the City Schools of Decatur system, one at Decatur High School, one at Renfroe Middle, and one at Glennwood Elementary.

He called the capacity issues at the high school “an opportunity,” noting the location of the high school campus in Decatur’s downtown area. Poelker suggested strategies to solve capacity issues, like holding classes off-campus. That could also connect the high school more strongly to the community in ways that benefit students.

Poelker agrees with Bollman that growth is overall is positive for the district.

“I think most people like Decatur because it’s a walkable, fairly dense environment. I think all of that is moving in the right direction and the schools will benefit from it,” said Poelker.

Mitchell said that the highest priority should always be the students, followed by the needs of teachers.

“It always came back around to, the kids are first.  Also at our table, there was talk of keeping a diverse community, how to preserve diversity in all the schools,” said Mitchell.

A copy of the presentation and a survey are available at the Facilities Master Planning Process website.  Another public meeting will be held on March 26.

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