Muscogee County superintendent recommends closing this school to merge with another

Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis recommended Monday night the closing of Early College Academy of Columbus and consolidating it with Jordan Vocational High School during the Muscogee County School Board work session.
Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis recommended Monday night the closing of Early College Academy of Columbus and consolidating it with Jordan Vocational High School during the Muscogee County School Board work session.

If the Muscogee County School Board approves the superintendent’s recommendation, two schools will merge to create a first-of-its kind educational institution in the state.

During the board’s monthly work session Monday night, Superintendent David Lewis proposed closing Early College Academy of Columbus and consolidating it with Jordan Vocational High School.

The board is expected to vote on the recommendation during its Feb. 18 meeting, which will start at 6 p.m. The merger would take effect in time for the 2019-20 school year.

The Jordan High School College and Career Academy would be Georgia’s first “wall-to-wall” college and career academy, Jordan principal Craig Fitts told the board. Although the state has 47 college and career academies since the concept’s inception eight years ago, including ones in Chattahoochee and Troup counties (Harris County is planning one), Jordan would be the first to include the entire school. So instead of it being a magnet program within the school, all of the students attending Jordan would be in the academy.

As defined by Georgia Senate Bill 161, which then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed in 2011, a college and career academy is a “specialized charter school established by a partnership which demonstrates a collaboration between business, industry and community stakeholders to advance workforce development between one or more local board of education, a private individual, a private organization or a state or local public entity in cooperation with one or more postsecondary institutions.”

Lewis explained to the board his rationale for the recommendation.

When it was founded in 2006, Early College was in the vanguard of Georgia high schools allowing students to earn college credit while pursuing their high school diplomas at the same time. But with dual enrollment now offered at most high schools in the state, including in MCSD, the enrollment at Early College has declined from a high of 181 to 127 this year, including only 25 freshmen.

Shane Larkin, a social studies teacher for grades 9-12 at Early College Academy, was named as one of three finalists for the Muscogee County School District’s 2017 Teacher of the Year award.A convoy of Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation me

Because state funding for local schools is tied to enrollment, having fewer students at Early College results in less money for the school. This fiscal year, Early College has generated $599,694 in state funding, but the school’s budgeted expenses are $1,253,551. That amounts to a deficit of $653,857, which MCSD must plug with local dollars.

The projected first-year expenses for a college and career academy at Jordan are $861,622, so the consolidation would save MCSD $391,929 next fiscal year, Lewis said.

In addition to the increased efficiency, the consolidation would allow Early College students to participate in athletics, fine and performing arts and extracurricular activities not offered at Early College, while still being able to take dual-enrollment courses at Columbus State University or Columbus Technical College.

Early College students would have three options if their school closes:

Automatic admission to Jordan, which has about 780 students now and a capacity of 1,300-1,400.

Enrollment at the school assigned to their home’s attendance zone.

Application to a magnet program at another MCSD high school for which they qualify. The original Jan. 18 application deadline would be extended for them, Lewis said.

MCSD has received assurance from the Georgia High School Association that Early College students who choose one of the first two options would receive a transfer waiver and be immediately eligible to compete in interscholastic athletics, Lewis said, instead of sitting out the normally required one year.

Lewis also promised that no Early College staff members (24 listed on the school’s website) would lose their job because of the merger. They would be able to apply for jobs at Jordan or any other MCSD site for which they are certified, he said.

MCSD will conduct two public forums about the consolidation plan: Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 at Jordan, both starting at 6 p.m.

Lewis envisions a college and career academy at Jordan boosting economic development and helping to keep homegrown talent in Columbus.

“We’re really basing this on the identified needs of our businesses in the community,” he said.

Lewis wants students attending the Jordan academy to “develop relationships with our (business) partners that they know, and when they interview for jobs, people know them.”

Jordan’s academy would focus on careers in engineering, health and human services and finance/information technology. It has the potential to be transformational for students, Fitts said, especially those from impoverished families.

“When you start talking about a kid being able to come out of high school and make $30,000-$40,000 a year,” he said, “. . . you talk about generational change.”

Lewis noted MCSD’s high school autism center is at Jordan, where special-needs student could receive extra training in the college and career academy.

“We feel like those kids are very capable, many of them, and we think that Jordan could be an opportunity for them to expand and see themselves integrating into the work force in some capacity,” he said.

Lewis’ father was a brick mason.

“I’m very proud of that,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about work ethic and craftsmanship and those kinds of things by working alongside him.”

When he told his father he chose education as his career path, Lewis said, his father advised him, “’Son, just make sure you have the right kids doing the right kind of job.’ . . . I think that’s pretty appropriate for this conversation. I want all of our kids to work in something they love to do, are successful in and that benefits our community as a contributing citizen.”

No board member spoke against the superintendent’s proposal.

Chairwoman Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone county-wide representative, and Naomi Buckner of District 4 lauded the opportunity the recommendation would give students.

District 2 representative Mike Edmondson also praised the idea.

“It goes toward meeting the vocational and career needs of kids better than what happens in a lot places now,” said Edmondson, a retired teacher. “The way we offer education to people has got to change.”

Teachers help students “imagine another world, another world for them, another way of being for them, another way of living and working for them,” Edmondson said.

Edmondson commended the success the Early College staff and supporters have forged, mentioning founding principal Susan Willard and her successor, Michael Forte.

Early College was named one of Georgia’s 84 Title I Distinguished Schools in 2018 — and the only one in MCSD — for being among the state’s highest-performing schools while educating students from low-income families. Early College’s 2018 College and Career Ready Performance Index score, based on a 100-point scale, is 89.6 — second-best out of MCSD’s 10 high schools. And its graduation rate is 100 percent for the third straight year.

“It’s wonderful, marvelous, miraculous and darn near sacred,” Edmondson said, “and for that, I know I’m not the only one grateful for that.”

Lewis emphasized that closing Early College would be “in no way a reflection of the work they’ve done. In fact, if anything, they’ve done such a good job, along with their counterparts at early colleges throughout the state, it is a model that’s being replicated in all of our schools. As a result of that, while it may not feel like it, it really is the ultimate compliment.”

Edmondson and Philip Schley of District 8 sat at the board table for the first time since being elected in 2018.

Laurie McRae of District 5 complimented the planning that went into the administration’s recommendation.

Vanessa Jackson of District 3 and Cathy Williams of District 7 were absent.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.

The Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation selected U.S. Army veteran Shane Larkin from the 56 Muscogee County schools teachers as the year for the district-wide Teacher of the Year during the annual banquet at the Columbus Convention & Trade