Columbus residents react to proposal to merge two Muscogee County schools

Superintendent - school merger will enhance opportunities and save money

The Muscogee County School District conducted the first of two public forums to inform residents about the proposal to close Early College Academy of Columbus and merge it with Jordan Vocational High School.
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The Muscogee County School District conducted the first of two public forums to inform residents about the proposal to close Early College Academy of Columbus and merge it with Jordan Vocational High School.

During a public forum Tuesday night, Columbus residents voiced their opinions and asked questions about the Muscogee County School District administration’s proposal to close a school and merge it with another one.

The plan would close Early College Academy of Columbus and consolidate it with Jordan Vocational High School. Superintendent David Lewis made the recommendation during the Jan. 14 meeting of the Muscogee County School Board.

Addressing a question about whether Early College students would lose access to various aspects of the dual-enrollment programs, such as transportation provided to attend classes at Columbus State University, Columbus Technical College or Georgia Military College, Lewis told the gathering of approximately three dozen residents Tuesday night in Jordan’s auditorium, “Whatever’s in place now we’ll continue.”

Beyond the issues of transferring credit and graduating on time, which officials said won’t be a problem, there were two main questions that didn’t have easy answers:

Early College supporters are concerned about those students losing the small class sizes they enjoyed, and Jordan supporters are concerned about the name of the merged school.

The name would be “Jordan something,” Lewis said, “and it more than likely will have ‘College and Career’ in it because that’s a requirement from the state for us to be able to apply for the ($3 million) grant. What it’ll actually be, that’s a discussion that we’ll have going forward. But that’s not a part of this recommendation.”

One former Jordan student said, “I’d hate to see ‘Vocational’ gone (from the name).”

Lewis replied, “I understand, and we have people who feel strongly about both sides. But that’s exactly why we’re not talking about that tonight. It’s more important to get the proposal through and approved by the board first. Don’t put the chicken before the egg. . . . It’s an issue that I know is important to a lot of people, but that’ll be a topic that we’ll discuss in the future.”

The mother of an Early College student told Lewis that many of those students “don’t function as well” in larger classes. They like the more attention they receive from their teachers at Early College, she said, “which is the whole reason why they’ve been there. … What about those children?”

Lewis replied, “I will not stand here and tell you we’re going to be able to provide anywhere in our system a classroom across the board where you’re only going to have six or eight students. … The reason we can’t sustain Early College is because those small class sizes, as nice as they might be for some, is just not sustainable.”

The teachers at Jordan, Lewis said, “are willing to do whatever they can to work with students. We work on differentiated instruction, breaking things down into smaller groups within a classroom. I think that they’ll be fine. I really do.”

Lewis added, “I want to make this really clear: I would not make a recommendation to the board that I wouldn’t want for my own children. That’s been my barometer all the way through. Every decision is based on that.”

MCSD will conduct another public forum about the proposal: Feb. 5 at 6 p.m., originally announced to be at Jordan but moved to the the board room in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, 2960 Macon Road.

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 — and it would create a first-of-its kind educational institution in the state.

The College and Career Academy at Jordan 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.

A few Early College supporters told Lewis during Tuesday night’s forum that some prospective freshman students were erroneously told they weren’t accepted into the academy. Another said middle school guidance counselors don’t promote Early College enough as a high school option. Lewis insisted that amount of students wouldn’t be enough to make the enrollment fiscally sound.

Because state funding for local schools is tied to enrollment, having fewer students at Early College results in less money for the school. Jordan has about 780 students now and a capacity of 1,300-1,400. Merging with Early College, Lewis said, would put Jordan’s enrollment closer to the 950 students high schools need to “break even in terms of state funding.”

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.

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.

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. Jordan’s graduate was 75.4 percent in 2018, MCSD’’s average was 88.9 percent and the state’s average was 81.6 percent.

“Early College has gotten the shaft year after year,” a mother said. “. . . Early College has been an afterthought. They’ve stuck them in this little school without even a parking lot. I mean, how they’ve been able to excel with what little they’re given, it’s amazing. This should be celebrated. This should be supported on a much larger scale.”

Lewis replied, “If we increased the population, that class size would not be the small class size it is. It’s also not sustainable.”

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