Although about a dozen schools in Richmond County are overcrowded or seriously under capacity, planners hired to determine which schools should be closed, merged or consolidated said they don’t foresee drastic changes in an upcoming reorganization plan.
“I don’t see major changes needed, but even if it’s one school, it still matters to that community,” said Bill Montgomery of Philadelphia-based Montgomery Education Consultants. “You have some neighborhoods where all they have is the school, so any scenario is taken quite seriously.”
At a focus group meeting held Thursday to discuss the reorganization of schools, the planners did not reveal which buildings are candidates for any number of actions. However, they presented data on birth rates, population changes and how well schools are meeting expectations for good educational climates, safety and facility conditions.
Montgomery said an ideal utilization of a building is at 85 percent and that, at 96 percent to 129 percent capacity, these schools are overcrowded: Bayvale Elementary, Copeland Elementary, John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet, Langford Middle, Lighthouse Care Center, Reynolds Elementary, C.T. Walker Elementary Magnet and Warren Road Elementary.
Craig-Houghton Elementary, T.W. Josey Comprehensive High, Richmond County Technical Career Magnet and Willis Foreman Elementary schools are at less than 60 percent capacity.
Montgomery said he and educational planner Thery McKinzie will return Jan. 21 to present the community and the board of education with scenarios for reorganization. The board would then review the plans and have another community meeting before developing a five-year long range plan of action.
Montgomery said population changes must be taken into consideration. West Augusta had at least a 10 percent population increase between 2000 and 2010, while parts of east Augusta declined.
According to birth rates, 82 percent of all children born in Richmond County stay long enough to enter the public schools, which Montgomery said was a fairly surprising statistic.
“In my past experience, that’s a large percentage,” he said. “Seventy-five percent would have been large.”
Given the population size of Augusta, several members of the focus group questioned why Richmond County for the past few decades has been constructing schools that house fewer than 1,000 students. In larger metro areas, it’s not unusual to see 2,000-student high schools.
Ben Ivey, who grew up in Augusta and founded a management company, said it’s somewhat wasteful to have to go through the “rightsizing” process every five or 10 years with small buildings that end up being overcrowded or underused.
“Smaller classrooms do make better learning environments, but having smaller classrooms doesn’t mean you only have to have 600 students in a school,” Ivey said. “You can have an intimate learning community, but your total learning population may exceed 2,000.”
Kam Kyzer, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the CSRA, said the focus group needed to receive much more data from the planners on how grade configurations and school sizes affect learning.
The district has a handful of schools that run kindergarten through eighth grade and others that have sixth grade through 12th. Kyzer said before making decisions about whether to merge or consolidate schools, the focus group must have evidence of whether those configurations are working better than K-5 or 9-12 schools and why.
“We’re not the only community to have to address rightsizing, so I feel we would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t look to resources or best practices,” Kyzer said.
Montgomery said more research and data on how building configurations affect learning will be provided at the Jan. 21 meeting but that expert opinions range across the board.
Bert Thomas, a retired educator who began working in Richmond County in 1956, said no matter what the schools look like, this process must include the objective to staff quality teachers and educators who care.
“We can talk about different plans and different grades, but they will only work if there are people in the schools with the right attitudes,” Thomas said.