The idea of closing Murphey Middle School and merging those students into Josey High School invoked parents’ worst fears Monday at the first town hall meeting held to discuss proposed rightsizing scenarios.
Their concerns revolved mostly around mixing young sixth-grade students with 12th-graders potentially as old as 20. They foresaw teen pregnancy, fighting on buses and worse.
“These are children who should be allowed to remain innocent and unblemished as long as possible, and putting them with adolescent population is not rational,” said Azelia Goldenberg, who has a daughter at Murphey and a son at Josey. “It’s a dangerous and volatile situation where we may end up with more Planned Parenthood issues, pregnancies, our black men in prison. We don’t want this. There has to be, and we know that there is, a better option.”
About 150 parents and community members attended Monday’s meeting at Josey, which focused on the Murphey/Josey merger. The majority of the roughly 20 who stepped to a microphone to comment were opposed to the idea, with a handful pushing the crowd to have an open mind.
Last month, Philadelphia-based education consultants proposed six reorganization scenarios to solve facilities issues in the district: close Collins Elementary; reconfigure T.W. Josey High into a 6-12 school to take in Murphey Middle students; reconfigure Butler High into a 6-12 school to absorb Sego Middle students; relocate Rollins Elementary to the Sego building; consolidate National Hills and Garrett elementary schools; and build a new K-8 school for west Augusta.
After three more community meetings, the Board of Education will use information gathered to approve or deny the proposals.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Debbie Alexander said the two 6-12 mergers will be a way to offer more academic programs to middle school students, like college preparation, dual enrollment and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs that they wouldn’t have in their middle schools.
“I can assure you as a former middle school teacher and a principal and parent that middle school students and whether they transition there safely and that they’re receiving the best education is a vital part (of this),” Alexander said.
Benton Starks, senior director of facilities and maintenance, said if the proposals are approved, the district would build a new middle school wing onto Josey and Butler to house those incoming middle school students, keeping the age groups separated.
However, Monique Braswell, who is running for a seat on the Board of Education this fall, said parents who have met on the issue say a K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 configuration would make more sense.
“We say leave our 9th through 12th grade alone,” she said. “When they come to high school, there’s a whole lot more pressure.”
She also questioned how building a new middle school wing would help solve under-enrollment issues in the existing high school buildings. After accusing district staff of not spending time in the schools, questioning Josey’s low graduation rate of 50 percent and implying that Principal Ronald Wiggins’ job is at risk, Superintendent Frank Roberson tried to talk her away from the microphone, causing a roar from the audience.
“This parent is not going to consume the time of other parents,” Roberson said.
While Josey has had serious issues with student achievement over the years, Wiggins said parents must look at the positive improvements it has accomplished recently.
It has dual enrollment partnerships with Augusta Technical and Paine colleges, a STEM program, and back-to-back Richmond County Teacher of the Year finalists.
A three-year federal School Improvement Grant that ended in 2013 put more than $2 million of technology and training into the school.
In 2012 it had the second-highest College and Career Readiness Index score among the district’s intervention schools and received more points for closing the achievement gap than any school in Richmond County. Its chronic absentee rate has also improved – with 96 students missing 15 days or more in 2013, compared to 219 in 2011.
“Anytime that you are going to merge separate grade levels, there is going to be a level of concern for parents and children,” Wiggins said. “Over the last three to four years, the number of instructional improvements, as well as the school culture, places us in a situation where parents should be less concerned than maybe in the past. But as a parent myself of three daughters, I do understand the concerns.”
However, Lanie Kennedy said she opted to send two of her children to a magnet school because she didn’t see much educational hope in Josey. She also said blending young middle school students with older teenagers could not help the academics.
“I feel like honestly you’re setting up our kids for failure,” Kennedy said. “You’re not giving them a chance because it’s not going to work. It doesn’t matter how you’ll say you’ll separate them here, here and there. It’s like you’re forcing the kids that want to learn into an environment where they won’t learn. This is not a good idea.”