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Theme school will wait

COVINGTON — Parents of the now-dissolved Clements parent-involvement theme school will have to wait at least another month before they will know if another theme school will be developed, which likely won't happen until at least the 2011-12 school year.

The Newton County Board of Education met Wednesday for a special called meeting to discuss several items, including the middle grades theme school.

"We've looked at options regarding a school within a school," Newton County School System Superintendent Steven Whatley told the school board members.

The board voted earlier this month to dissolve the theme school in order to equalize the enrollment numbers at the middle school level to prevent overcrowding at the other schools in light of a budget shortfall. School board member C.C. Bates and some theme school parents asked school officials if it was possible to create a previously proposed preparatory academy housed inside the Clements building, much like a liberal arts academy is housed at Newton High School, as a replacement for the middle grades theme school.

Whatley proposed Wednesday for the 2010-11 school year to be used to study the feasibility of a school within a school. He said some NCSS officials have concerns about developing another program in time for the 2010-11 school year and have many questions that the school board will have to help iron out.

"Though we have heard from some parents, we do not have a number of how many people are interested in a school within a school," he said.

Whatley said about 10 staff members teach the 270 students at the current Clements theme school. He said a school within a school could remain revenue neutral, but it could require extra funding to support a principal, director or an extra assistant principal, among other support staff. He also was concerned about transportation and extra bookkeeping and the costs associated with that, as well as where the students would be housed at the school.

"We need to determine if in actuality we want to pilot a school within a school ... and if Clements would be the best place for that," Whatley said. "At this point, we're in a holding pattern ... and time is running out."

Whatley also suggested that the board could look into developing a program that focused on science and math or performing arts, or even an International Baccalaureate program, which provides rigorous and advanced course work for students.

School board chair Cathy Dobbs said she is disappointed that NCSS officials still haven't scheduled to meet with parents of the theme school to communicate with them about the dissolving of the school and ask for interest about a school within a school or other programs, although dozens of parents and staff members attended the last school board meeting.

"I'm a little bit frustrated," she said, adding that she asked Whatley after the meeting to hold a meeting with parents. "I know there is a lot going on, but I had hoped there would already have been some communication with the people who took the time to come (to our meeting). ... It's been eight days (since the school board meeting). I'm really disappointed. I'm frustrated."

"They have just been in the dark," said school board member Almond Turner. "We have let them down."

Board members agreed with Whatley and school officials that it would be too rushed to develop and start a new program in time for the 2010-11 school year to start in August or even wait until January.

"I don't want us to move hastily with this and open another school and have problems with that ... and we're back in the same boat as we were before," Turner said.

Dobbs said it is important to note that rising fourth- and fifth-grade students who are currently at Clements will continue to the theme school program that is housed at Fairview Theme School next school year, but she wants more grades to have the opportunity for the program in the future. She said she would not be in favor of adding more grade levels to that school building, as core facilities like the cafeteria and restrooms would be overcrowded, even with the trailers at the school.

"I think we need to do better, and I hope we will do better," she said. "I was hoping we could get this done (for this school year), but I'm one person, and I feel powerless."

She said she wants the school board to work with incoming NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews to hold a stakeholders meeting and develop a plan, as he is in support of a similar program.

"He's prepared," she said. "(Whatley's) time is almost up. It's obvious it won't be done for the fall term."

Dobbs said Mathews has started several new programs in the school districts where he has worked in the past and will be able to offer a new perspective on their plans.

"I think if we take our time" it can be successful, she said. "Parents are going to have to be patient and give us some time. ... We're going to be better for taking time, as disappointing as it is. ... I'd hate for us to throw it together and it fail again. We're not throwing it away — we're just taking some time."

Turner and board member Johnny Smith said they hope school officials will research various programs and come up with something even better than a parent-involvement theme school.

"It we take our time and allow people to really do research and come up with a better product, then the entire county will be better off," Turner said. "I feel sorry for the parents ... but I think we owe them something that will be a benefit."

Whatley plans to mail a letter to parents by Tuesday discussing the dissolving of the theme school and asking about interest in starting another program.

Board member C.C. Bates was absent from Wednesday's special called meeting.