In less than a year, local schools in the Chattahoochee Valley will have to make room for nearly 6,000 additional students.
That’s how many are expected to come to schools in Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Harris and Russell counties and Phenix City after the U.S. Army relocates the Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning through its Base Realignment and Closure program.
While the new students will be spread out depending on the system -- some are expecting more than 4,000, while other are preparing for a couple of hundred -- the question for leaders in each district is the same: Where will they go?
“That’s the real puzzle,” said Myles Caggins, the Muscogee County School District’s chief of operations and facilities, who has been helping plan for the new students. “Where will they go?”
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Muscogee County schools
Muscogee County schools are expecting the brunt of the growth -- about 4,300 total. Most are expected to arrive over the summer and start school in August 2011.
Enrollment for the district stands at about 33,250, and Caggins said the district could handle about 1,000 more students right now.
“We do have some empty seats in some schools,” Caggins said.
Caggins said administrators can’t predict where students will attend classes, but there are areas of the county they predict might be growing.
East Columbus, along Buena Vista Road and Old Cusseta Road, could grow because it would be the closest to the new Fort Benning access gate on Schatulga Road. Growth here would affect schools like Kendrick High, Georgetown Elementary and Dawson Elementary.
Larry DiChiara, the superintendent of Phenix City Schools, said his district is already seeing more students due to BRAC. Enrollment increased by 271 students from this same time last year. Last year, the system gained about 179 students.
The system is expected to gain at least 750 military children from BRAC, but DiChiara said that number could be higher. A new law passed in 2009 ensures that military dependents have the same rights as Georgia residents when it comes to receiving the HOPE scholarship.
The HOPE scholarship is funded by the lottery and pays the majority of college tuition for Georgia students who maintain at least a 3.0 in high school and in college. Tuition assistance is also available, with no grade requirement, for students heading to technical colleges.
“I’ve had soldiers tell me that they want to live in Alabama because of the low property taxes, the low crime rate and the good schools, but their children need to get the HOPE Scholarship,” DiChiara said. “Now they don’t have that hanging over their head.”
The 3,340-student Russell County School District is also building more classrooms to welcome the 200 to 300 military students expected due to BRAC.
The district expects a 12-classroom addition to Mount Olive Elementary to be finished by fall 2011, just in time for the new students.
Superintendent Mike Green said administrators also expect enrollment to increase at another school in the Fort Mitchell area, Oliver Elementary. Oliver has space for 50 to 100 students, or about three classes.
Green said Russell County Middle and Russell County High School also have more room for students -- about four classrooms apiece.
The Harris County School System is expecting about 300 students to enroll once the armor school completes its move, Superintendent Craig Dowling said. The system has already gotten about 50 students.
Most of the growth in the 4,700-student school district is expected to happen at Pineridge Elementary and Harris County High School, Dowling said, based on the percentage of military students already at those schools and projecting for future growth. The high school is the only school where administrators expect to have space issues, he said.
“At every other school we are fine,” he said. Portable classrooms may be added. The system also opened up Creekside School for fifth- and sixth-graders in 2009 to help cope with expected growth.
Chattahoochee County, the smallest public school system in the region, with 960 students, is expecting an increase of about 200 students after the BRAC moves are complete.
However, Superintendent Jimmy Martin said the system could get a few hundred more students after Fort Benning finishes its housing rebuilding project on post.
Martin said the district has enough space at Chattahoochee County Elementary School for two or three classrooms. Another wing was added to Chattahoochee County Middle/High School two years ago, providing the school with about six extra classrooms.