By ASHLEY AMASON
For nearly four hours it was standing room only as the Walton County School Board listened to dozens of parents voice their concerns and opposition to moving fifth-grade students at Van R. Butler Elementary School (VRB) and Bay Elementary School (BES) to the new Emerald Coast Middle School (ECMS) due to overcrowding. Fifth-grade students at Freeport Elementary School (FES) will move to Freeport Middle School (FMS) as well, but no opposition was expressed against the move. In fact, parent and FES teacher Jennifer Nick said she and her child were “excited” for the change and she felt confident her child would be “loved, respected and protected” at FMS.
The board determined moving fifth-graders was the most cost-effective and immediate solution to severe overcrowding and continued enrollment growth for these schools at its March 15 workshop. A parent-meeting in south Walton County with Superintendent Carlene Anderson followed the workshop, after which Anderson amended her recommendation from mandatory attendance for fifth- graders at ECMS during the 2011-12 school year, to optional attendance until the 2012-13 school year.
At the April 5 WCSB meeting, a revolving door of parents addressed the board with the same sentiment: don’t send our kids to ECMS.
Parent Ali Barrett, (BES), said, “We truly don’t want fifth-graders at middle school…we just want a better plan than that…they need to be in the right environment.”
Judy Stoddard (BES) referenced lists of statistics claiming “damaging effects” on school age children (5-11) integrating with adolescents.
Andrea Miree stated, “Moving fifth-graders to ECMS is not the best decision,” and recalled an exceptional student who, according to Miree, would be more vulnerable to bullying on a middle school campus.
Gary Gibson suggested an advisory panel composed of the existing parent-teacher organization to improve communication between the district and parents. “Take advantage of the interest of the parents of [these children],” he said.
Parents questioned the feasibility of adding more portable classrooms to BES and VRB and later acquiring property across the street from BES to build an additional wing.
Parent Rene Endres (BES) demanded to know why the district had funding to tear down Walton Middle School (WMS) and rebuild, but could not build at BES. The board clarified WMS was not being torn down, although inaccurate reports in the April 2 edition of The Walton Sun claimed it was slated for demolition.
As for land acquisition, Chairperson Sharon Roberts explained “[We’ve] never been approached as a board to buy the property across from BES,” and to the board’s knowledge “it is not for sale.”
Board member Mildred Wilkerson noted she would never vote in favor of a land purchase for which children had to cross an open street. Gilmore Road runs in between BES and the property in discussion. Endres continued she did not understand “Carlene’s stand” on portable buildings being unsafe and why more portables couldn’t be added to the campus.
Anderson replied, “I would never say a building is unsafe, or we wouldn’t put children in there at all.”
VRB Principal Tammy Smith explained during inclement weather all nine classes held in portable buildings must come inside the main building, for which 18 classes are disturbed and overcrowded. “During inclement weather…it’s a lot of bodies,” she said.
VRB parent Anita Allen requested more research and concrete numbers on why the transition is imminent and questioned how many students were attending either of the schools outside of the district in which they live. Anderson noted the district examined students attending school outside of their residency district and found it was an even swap between BES and VRB and enforcing attendance zoning, which the district has never done, would not ease overcrowding.
Renee Johnson told the board she would like to hear “straight nays” on the recommendation and see construction of the fourth and fifth-grade wing at ECMS expedited.
Ty Sims (BES) declared, “This whole process seems to be driven by numbers, but I have yet to see a comprehensive break down….”
A comprehensive breakdown is addressed each year in the five-year facility plan, Anderson said, and directed parents to a slideshow featuring current enrollment numbers. Capacity for VRB is 667; its current enrollment is 879. BES surpassed its capacity of 286 with a current enrollment of 312, and based on Kindergarten pre-registration figures, which the board uses as a growth indicator for the upcoming year, both schools will need two additional classrooms for Kindergarten alone.
After reviewing the numbers, a few parents shifted their focus from fighting the move to ECMS to discussing the success of fifth-graders on a middle school campus.
“Do you all have a plan…are you talking with other counties/districts who already have this plan in place,” asked Diana Kish (BES).
“We’ve had dialogue with Destin as recently as yesterday,” current ECMS Prinicpal Gail Smith answered, noting Destin Middle School’s great success with the 5-8 model.
“[The success of any model] depends entirely on the quality of the administrators in that building,” board member Mark Davis said….
Read the full story in the April 14, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.