Focus group mulls overcrowding at E.T. Booth
by Megan Thornton
mthornton@cherokeetribune.com
October 11, 2012 02:29 AM | 1625 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TOWNE LAKE — The last of this year’s boundary focus group meetings was the second for a group of middle school parents, the majority in attendance uncertain about their children’s future with the possible closing of one school.

Mitch Hamilton, planning and forecasting coordinator for the school district, told the audience of both Chapman Intermediate School and E.T. Booth Middle School parents that Booth is at a total enrollment of 1,191 and Chapman serves 921 students.

As of this school year, Booth has the highest percentage of overcrowding without considering portables at 173 percent. The school currently uses 22 portables and is considered critically overcrowded.

The overcrowding will be relieved by the opening of the new Booth behind the present facility slated to open next fall, Hamilton said.

The new facility was built for a projected capacity of 1,500 students and the old building is slated for demolition and to be redesigned as activity fields.

As part of the opening of the new Booth, one proposal that’s been weighed by district officials is moving the sixth grade students from Chapman, which serves fifth- and sixth-graders, to make the new grade configuration at Booth sixth through eighth grade.

Under the proposal, fifth-graders in the Etowah Zone would return to their designated neighborhood elementary school (Bascomb, Boston, Clark Creek and Oak Grove.)

The fate of Chapman, however, is yet to be decided.

Russ Sims, assistant superintendent for facilities and construction management, said none of the feeder elementary schools, all of which have already had boundary focus meetings, requested an additional meeting.

“All of those schools that we met with seemed to be fine with going to a K-five model,” Sims said. “We are also looking at Booth being a six to eight but that’s still up in the air a little bit.”

Sims said he and Hamilton serve as a conduit to the board for parents who want to give input on the school changes. He urged the approximately 50 parents in attendance to send them emails so they could compile the information for board members.

“Since our last meeting, we’ve had 11 emails so it’s not a lot of emails (that have been sent) in the process but the opportunity is there,” Sims said.

The first meeting for Chapman and Booth parents was Sept. 24.

Sims said his department is still in the process of considering all input prior to settling on recommendations for the board.

“Booth being a six-eight for a lot of the schools that we’ve come to, (that) seems to be the pattern that everybody’s looking at,” Sims said.

Assistant Superintendent of School Operations Brian Hightower, who spent 16 years at Etowah as a teacher and administrator, said district officials are still trying to determine the best use of the Chapman facility but the idea of turning it into a ninth-grade center came about approximately two years ago.

“Is that something the board and district is tied to? The answer is no,” Hightower said. “Absolutely not. This is just about giving this campus some additional infrastructure.”

Hightower said the campus, referred to as Eagle Mountain, will serve about 4,000 students total next year, but the aim of district staff is to best serve the majority of that population.

However, Hightower said he has noticed “kickback” on the ninth-grade center concept from parents because the ninth-grade population would be segregated from the rest of the Etowah population across the street.

He said he’s also heard concerns about safety for students crossing the campus, which he said would also be addressed before any action is taken, including looking at possibly changing traffic patterns.

Another concern Hightower addressed was whether the district would continue segregating buses by middle and high school. Etowah, Booth and Chapman comprise the only joint middle and high school campus that does not bus sixth- through 12th-grade students together.

He said budget constraints may impact the decision, but he would like to continue the current operations.

“Am I jumping to say we have to have 6-12 busing? No,” Hightower said. “Do we have to consider it because of the budget? Yes.”

Etowah Principal Keith Ball, who had a hand in writing the ninth grade academy initiative prior to taking his role as principal at Etowah, said his priority is getting students out of mobile classrooms. According to district data, Etowah uses 30 portable classrooms.

He said he was open to other uses of Chapman previously mentioned by Hightower, including a STEM facility or testing center.

“Those are all things I’m extremely excited about,” Ball said. “There’s no blueprint for this. Other schools have done things that are a little bit similar, but on the Mountain, you’ve got to do it the right way.”

Parent Janet Zust, who has a daughter in the fifth grade at Chapman, asked why no school board members were present to see the “passion” of parents about the issue.

“We’ve got people making decisions for our children and our family who don’t show up,” Zust said.

Sims said he preferred board members not attend so staff could generate input from parents and present all the data to the board after addressing all parent questions and concerns.

Parent Valerie Johnson, member of Etowah’s PTSA, said she was glad most attendees have taken a step back since the initial meeting, during which she said many people became visibly upset, to consider all of the options on the table.

She also encouraged parents to find out more about their local school council, which she participates in.

Johnson received a round of applause after she presented her own proposal for the Eagle Mountain campus to Sims.

“We as a community just kind of feel like there needs to be a step back from the ninth-grade academy,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of us agree that the ninth-grade academy works very well… but I think we need to step back and look at the other possibilities you guys have said, whether it’s a testing facility, science lab, getting people out of the mobiles and looking very carefully at safety.”

The proposal requests the Chapman facility be used across all grade levels and instructional settings. An online petition for the proposal has already garnered almost 100 signatures as of Tuesday night.

There will be a public input meeting with the Board of Education on Nov. 1 from 6:30 to 7 p.m., where parents can bring any final questions or concerns to the board. The final board vote will be Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.
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