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Parents question theme school changes

COVINGTON -- Even more changes may face the Newton County School System parent-involvement theme schools next school year.

Several parents approached the Newton County Board of Education during its monthly meeting last week to voice their concerns over the recent changes the board members approved during their work session earlier this month.

On Feb. 9, the members unanimously approved a new plan for theme schools that includes program expansion at Clements, additional personnel and policy changes. The plan was part of a recommendation by NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley and developed by a theme school committee, district personnel and school administrators to enhance the program.

Many parents are concerned about the entrance requirements that stipulate students must maintain certain grade averages and scores on state tests.

"Now I feel like we're back at square one again with this," said Wendy Lowe, one of the parents who spoke to the board.

She said when she signed her child up for the school, she was told enrollment at the theme schools would not involve grades -- only parent involvement.

"Now it's being switched up, and I don't think that's fair," she said, adding that the parent committee did not discuss the new enrollment requirements. "You didn't offer the parents a chance to discuss it. You need to bring it back to us."

School board member C.C. Bates said she has heard from some parents who agree with Lowe, but some approve of the changes because it "raises the bar" for students.

Under the new plan, at both theme schools, NCSS will establish new entrance requirements for the 2010-11 school year, as currently there are no academic or behavioral entrance requirements at either school.

According to the new requirements, students entering first grade must be meeting or exceeding curriculum standards or progressing towards meeting them; second- through fourth-grade students must achieve a 2 or 3 or "satisfactory" or "progressing" in all subject areas on progress reports and report cards. Rising fifth through eighth graders must earn an 80 or higher for their semester averages or "satisfactory" or "progressing" in other program areas.

All students must have passed the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in English/language arts and math to be admitted to either school. No academic entrance requirements are mandatory for incoming kindergarten students.

Additionally, for the 2010-11 school year, students in grades one through eight must have no out-of-school suspensions and no more than two discipline referrals that resulted in detention or in-school-suspension to be admitted to the theme schools.

For the 2011-12 school year, students in grades one through three must achieve a 2 or 3 or "satisfactory" or "progressing" to remain in the theme school; and students in grades four through eight must earn a yearly average of 80 or "satisfactory" or "progressing" to remain at the theme schools.

Parent Baxter Bouchillon said at the board meeting that he believes requiring a minimum grade in each subject area might be too stringent, and he and other parents suggested the board consider requiring a minimum overall grade-point average instead.

"I'm glad you are making changes," he said. "I think we can agree we all want to raise the bar."

Board members and Superintendent Whatley said they plan to revisit some of the changes.

"I think it's something we need to look at," said school board Chairwoman Cathy Dobbs. "This is a new concept for us, and we're doing everything we can to make this succeed. We want to see these schools fill up."

She said she will consider adding a period of probation for students to get their averages up, and Bates and fellow member Almond Turner said they will consider requiring a cumulative GPA, rather than a certain grade in each subject area.

"If we have a GPA (requirement) at an 80, students should already be there and not fall below that rule because we're talking about parent involvement" helping their grades, Turner said.

"Let us take these issues under advisement ... to see what we can do because we're all after our kids improving," Whatley said. "What we've heard is that we need to look at this."

Also under the new plan, the theme schools will cap enrollment at the schools next school year -- 100 kindergarten students, 154 first-graders, 110 second-graders, 110 third-graders, 108 fourth-graders, 108 fifth-graders, 140 sixth-graders, 140 seventh-graders and 140 eighth-graders. Currently, 140 kindergartners are enrolled in Fairview Theme School, 102 first-graders, 99 second-graders, 96 third-graders, 63 fourth-graders, 70 fifth-graders, 114 sixth-graders, 69 seventh-graders and 34 eighth-graders.

As part of the new theme school plan, parent contracts also will be revised at the theme schools next school year to be more clear and specific, and schools will continue to track volunteer hours using a software program.

The schools also will periodically administer climate surveys to measure customer satisfaction, according to the new plan.

Clements Theme School, which will be renamed Clements Preparatory Academy under the new plan, will hold an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday for students and their parents interested in attending the school for the 2010-11 school year. Fairview will hold a meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 15.

Parents can register their students for the theme schools until April 2. Parents can download an application from the school Web sites through the NCSS Web site, www.newtoncountyschools.org, or they can get an application in hard copy at the school.