Parental protest: Closing of Clements theme school draws ire

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

Staff Reporter

COVINGTON -- Dozens of parents, students and teachers at Clements parent-involvement theme school showed up at the Newton County Board of Education's monthly meeting Tuesday night to protest its decision to close the school.

On May 11, at the board's monthly work session, members approved the dissolving of Clements as a theme school in order to include it on the list of regular middle schools in the county, which were rezoned to address overcrowding and budget concerns.

"We have taken serious cuts," said Newton County School System Superintendent Steven Whatley. "There are a number of issues we had to deal with the past two years."

The school board approved last year the opening of two parent-involvement theme schools in the Fairview Elementary and Clements Middle school sites to house students in kindergarten through eighth grades. The schools served families who chose to apply to the schools and required a certain number of volunteer hours from parents.

"If you saw a train wreck coming, then why did we open the school in the first place?" asked parent Jeffrey Wallace Tuesday night. "Our economy didn't get bad over the last six to eight months."

Before Tuesday's meeting started, individuals held signs that read "Save our school" and other phrases and shouted "Clements kids matter" while marching on the sidewalk at the school board building on Newton Drive.

With assistance from the Newton County Sheriff's Office, school officials allowed a capacity crowd of nearly 100 individuals into the board room, where about 30 parents and some others spoke to school board members during the public comment portion of the meeting. Others filled the building's lobby.

During the meeting, parents expressed their disappointment in the closing of the school and also the lack of warning from the school board about its closing.

"They are shutting us down," said Vicki Mitchell, parent of fourth- and sixth-grade students at Clements, before the meeting. "It was handled all wrong. They asked us about every other part that was going on ... and then they up and pulled this."

At a special budget meeting on May 6, school board members discussed either combining the county's two theme schools or dissolving the middle theme school. After discussing the negatives of housing so many grade levels in an elementary school building and hearing from concerned staff and parents at Fairview on May 11, the school board voted to house kindergarten through grade five at Fairview and dissolve the middle school.

Parents said they weren't informed of the decision to close the school until after it was made.

"It's your obligation to notify us (taxpayers)," said Darren Porter. "What kind of precedent are you setting for our students -- if you excel, you get kicked to the bottom? ... It's upsetting this whole process."

Parents said they are more disappointed that the school will be closing.

"It came as a shock to most of us," said parent Barbara Lloyd. "We're all very much devastated by it."

Parents applauded the popular science club and band program at the school, its principal, Jill Adams, and the parents who are involved in their children's education and the school in general, some volunteering for more than 100 hours.

"Something we did worked," said Clements staff member Alonzo Yelling, citing high CRCT scores from the school. "They weren't star students walking in the door. ... We worked with them and we nurtured them. ... How do you tell a 9- to 14-year-old that they worked, worked, worked and it means absolutely nothing?"

Some parents blamed the school closing on low and decreasing enrollment -- which hovered between 300 and 350, while other schools topped 1,000 -- due to the board getting rid of door-to-door transportation after the school year had started and then not allowing new students entering the district to enroll.

"We were given a lump of coal and had to promise by 2012 to have a diamond," Mitchell said. "We were given eight months. It's not fair to our children."

Some parents hoped the board would reconsider its decision to dissolve the school.

"We have to keep our schools competitive with other districts," said Greg Odom. "Let's do something to keep our kids competitive, to keep them off the streets and to keep them in a positive role. Let's think about our kids -- let's put them first."

Parents expressed interest in -- and some board members have previously said they hope to add -- more grade levels to the theme school each year or so. Over the next five years, the school system plans to have a combined theme school housed at the current Eastside High School facility.

Board members also have discussed adding a proposed Clements Preparatory Academy inside the Clements Middle School site, as Newton High School does with its Academy of Liberal Arts. It would allow students to take enrichment programs and participate in an enhanced curriculum.

"We tried hard and fell short," said Baxter Bouchillon, a parent of a Fairview student who serves on a parent committee at both schools. "I hope we can push this and grow it year by year."