2/25/16 High school district plan continues to evolve

High school district plan continues to evolve
Superintendent eyes possible STEM, arts or technical focus at Graham or Cummings
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 2/25/16    
Reprinted with permission.      

   As promised, the high school redistricting proposal for the Alamance-Burlington School System keeps changing as the superintendent gets feedback, and it will get more tweaks by the time the board meets in March.

   “We’re still in the brainstorming stages,” superintendent Bill Harrison said in a meeting of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education this week.

   The biggest change in the high school redistricting plan is keeping Williams High School a high school and extending its zone to the Guilford County line, to keep Southern and Western Alamance high schools from getting too big.

   Harrison said his first plan of building a new high school in Hawfields and drawing seven high school zones is basically off the table. While it dealt with overcrowding, Harrison got feedback from the board, and from members of the board’s joint taskforce with the Alamance County Board of Commissioners on school system capital improvements, that redistricting also needs to address problems like unequal resources among schools and concentrations of poverty.

   Earlier this month, Harrison came back with a plan to get past the old city and county schools systems and cut the county into quarters with four high school zones for Western, Southern and Eastern Alamance high schools, and a new school. The urban high schools, Williams, Cummings and Graham, where high-poverty students are increasingly concentrated, could essentially be converted to magnet schools.

   “We have not, I think, to me, it appears, looked at the school system as a county school system, and that’s a difficult conversation to have,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of institutions, but at some point, we have to decide what is more important, the institution, or those the institution serves.”

   The problem, Harrison said, is it would mean a Southern High School with nearly 2,000 students, a Western with more than 1,800, and an Eastern with nearly 1,400. While those schools could be expanded to accommodate that many students, Harrison said, he prefers schools no larger than 1,500 students, so an expanded Williams would reduce the load on Southern and Western.

   Graham or Cummings, Harrison said, could become a sixth- through 12th-grade school, like the Durham School of the Arts, a science-and-engineering school or a technical school for the building trades.

   “I’ve heard over and over again from people in the construction industry, we have a real need for people in the trade areas,” Harrison said.

   As dramatic a change as that would be, Harrison said he has generally gotten good responses to the idea, like the only public comment at the board’s February meeting

   “I just wanted to come here tonight to say ‘Thank you’ to Dr. Harrison: Thank you for going back over the redistricting process,” the Rev. Ed McDowell said.

   Board members were positive about the idea, but want to see it refined. Patsy Simpson was interested in having a high school focused on college-bound students from around the county to give high-achieving students equal access to Advanced Placement classes.

   Harrison said he would bring the board a calendar for getting to a final plan by December, including public forums in late spring or summer.

   Board Chair Steve Van Pelt wanted to keep focused on the overcrowding that prompted ABSS to look at redistricting in the first place.

   “The first priority is we’ve got to do something about overcrowding at Southern, Eastern and somewhat at Western,” Van Pelt said, “and I’m open to anything.”