The fate of Early College Academy of Columbus was decided Tuesday night as the Muscogee County School Board voted on the superintendent’s recommendation to close the school and merge it with Jordan Vocational High School.
Citing declining enrollment at Early College and the related financial impact, superintendent David Lewis made the recommendation during the board’s Jan. 14 work session. Then MCSD conducted two public forums for residents to ask questions about the plan.
Before the vote Tuesday night, some of the nine board members shared their reasoning and their feelings about supporting the superintendent’s request.
Mike Edmondson of District 2 said, “As a (retired) teacher I hate to see programs and approaches cease that have been very successful. … I wish there was some way it could wholesale continue, but I do understand the need to watch our finances.”
Cathy Williams of District 7 said the closing of Early College is a personal loss for her because it is one of the schools she represents.
“But it is the fiscally responsible thing to do for the taxpayers of the district,” she said. “Early College has been a phenomenal school, a phenomenal program, and I wish all of our students could be able to have the same atmosphere. But in order to grow the success of this program … (merging with Jordan) allows kids who will not come to Early College because they still want to have a traditional high school experience, with sports and debate and things we don’t offer at Early College, it will broaden the opportunities for students to participate. So I don’t think it’s a step backwards; I think it is two steps forward.”
Naomi Buckner of District 4 called the closing of Early College “an evolving, not a shutting down, evolving and becoming more.”
Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, thanked Early College principal Michael Forte and his staff “for all the wonderful things you have done.” She added about Forte, “I do look forward to the next school you will lead.”
Laurie McRae of District 5 said, “My heart aches for the students.”
After the meeting, Early College history teacher Shane Larkin, the 2017 MCSD Teacher of the Year, told the Ledger-Enquirer he understands the decision but it still is tough to take.
“Early College is a family, and the success we’ve had over the last several years has been absolutely amazing,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge transition. The students at Early College are a unique breed. They rely on each other. They allow us to teach them, and it’s a privilege to teach them. … I learn from our students every day.”
It’s too soon, Larkin said, to determine what’s next for him.
“I guess I could go a lot of different routes, but I don’t know,” he said. “I guess, like in sports, I’m a free agent.”
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 rate was 75.4 percent in 2018, MCSD’’s average was 88.9 percent and the state’s average was 81.6 percent.
Lewis explained to the board last month 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.
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 has 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 has said.
Early College students remaining in MCSD next school year now have three options for where to attend:
▪ 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 will be extended for them, Lewis has 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 has said, instead of sitting out the normally required one year.
Lewis also has promised that no Early College staff members (24 listed on the school’s website) will lose their job because of the merger. They will be able to apply for jobs at Jordan or any other MCSD site for which they are certified, he has said.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.