Board votes to dissolve theme school

COVINGTON -- Next school year the Newton County School System will have five full middle schools again.

After experimenting with new parent-involvement theme schools for elementary and middle school students this school year, the Newton County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to dissolve the middle school theme school and subsequently rezone all five of its middle schools.

"Our middle schools are overcrowded," said school board chair Cathy Dobbs. "We can't have 300 kids (at the theme school) when all of the middle schools are overcrowded."

As of May 6, 718 students were enrolled at Cousins Middle, 1,053 at Veterans Memorial Middle, 1,129 at Indian Creek Middle, 1,197 at Liberty Middle and 338 at Clements Theme, according to an NCSS enrollment report. Last school year, Clements Middle serviced around 700 students, and this year enrollment has hovered between 300 and 350 students with fourth through eighth grades in Clements Theme.

"I think we took too many big steps," Dobbs said. "We have to use our space wisely. ... It is a reality of our financial situation."

Earlier this school year, school officials presented a plan to the board to change Clements Theme to Clements Preparatory Academy to depict enriched program areas with an enhanced curriculum. Board member C.C. Bates asked Tuesday if the academy could be housed in Clements, like the Academy of Liberal Arts is housed within Newton High School, but no decision has yet to be made regarding that suggestion.

In collaboration with the dissolving of the middle theme school, all five middle schools in NCSS are being rezoned to provide for a more equal enrollment. NCSS officials developed feeder schools to classify middle school designations.

Clements Middle School will receive students from Porterdale Elementary School and those from Live Oak Elementary who live south of I-20. Cousins Middle will receive students from Live Oak who live north of I-20, as well as those from Ficquett, Palmer Stone and a northern portion of East Newton students. Indian Creek Middle will service students from Rocky Plains, Heard-Mixon, Mansfield and a southern portion of East Newton. Students from South Salem, Livingston and Middle Ridge will attend Liberty Middle, and students from West Newton and Oak Hill will attend Veterans Memorial.

NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley said these zones likely will create schools with a population between about 750 to 970 students. It also only will split up students who attend Live Oak and East Newton elementary schools, which already are split.

As part of Whatley's recommendation approved by the board, rising eighth graders at each middle school will be allowed to stay in their current middle school if they choose, as long as their parents provide transportation for them. He said Thursday that the schools will create a tight deadline for parents to make this choice, but he has not yet announced the date.

Board member Eddie Johnson opposed the recommendation for the reason that eighth graders will be allowed to stay if they so choose.

"I think we gotta get outta that mode. ... We are failing miserably," he said, adding that it can pull teachers from schools as a result of a few students eventually deciding to attend another school.

But Bates previously said some students feel acclimated and have a sense of pride to their school and can be hurt if they move when they aren't ready to do so.

Also, as part of the motion, Fairview Parent Involvement Theme School was elected to house kindergarten through fifth grades, instead of the current kindergarten through third grades it serves now. Originally the school board members discussed moving sixth graders to the elementary theme school as well, but later decided against it.

Several parents and employees at Fairview spoke during the meeting, asking for the school to only add one grade level next school year as it previously planned.

"We succeeded this year and know we can continue by growing slowly," said teacher Burny Drumheller, adding that every third grader met or exceeded standards on the reading portion of the CRCT and 95.6 percent met or exceeded on math. "Please do not give us more than we can chew."

Dobbs said she hopes future boards will consider adding a grade level to the theme school ever year or so. Board member Johnny Smith said he hopes that will give enough time to be housed in the current Eastside High School building, which later is being planned to move to a new high school and that building to house grades one through eight.