Parents and community members met at Butler High School on Monday to voice again their reservations about a proposal to merge two middle schools into their feeder high schools.
“How are you going to protect the children from the teen pregnancy, the sexual abuse, the violence, the bullying, the exposure to guns?” asked Dawn Creele, whose two sons would be affected by the changes. “How can you expose them to things the 17-, the 18-, the 19-year-olds are exposed to when they are so young and innocent at that age?”
The third town hall meeting held to discuss various proposed rightsizing scenarios focused Monday on closing Sego Middle School and merging those students into Butler High School in 2019, a reconfiguration also being proposed for Murphey Middle and T.W. Josey High schools as early as May.
Last month, Philadelphia-based education consultants proposed six reorganization scenarios to solve facilities issues in the district: close Collins K-8 School; 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.
A town hall meeting at Josey last week produced similar concerns from parents – fears about teen pregnancy and fighting, and general uneasiness about blending young sixth-graders with high-schoolers as old as 20.
Sego and Butler were selected to be merged because both have seen significant drops in enrollment over the last decade.
Now at 629 students, Sego has lost more than 300 students since 2003, and Butler’s enrollment of 795 is 440 less than a decade ago, according to data provided by the school system.
Along with eliminating the costs of running two under-used buildings, the merger would provide academic opportunities for the middle school students, said Debbie Alexander, assistant superintendent for instruction.
By moving to Butler, students would have access to dual enrollment courses, Advanced Placement, more personalized learning and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs, Alexander said.
If the Board of Education approves these proposals at its meeting March 11, the district would use capital projects money to build a new middle school wing onto Butler and Josey, keeping the age groups separated.
However, the majority of parents who spoke at the town hall meetings say they don’t believe separate wings would protect vulnerable students.
“I’ve done my job as a parent, but right now, my 11-year-old, he’s not prepared to go to sixth grade and be around older boys,” said parent Natasha Harrison. “When he gets around those older boys, in order to fit in, I just think he might make some bad choices even though I raised him to do the right thing.”
Harrison asked why the board has not considered merging Murphey and Sego instead to form a comprehensive middle school, saving money for the district and keeping the school age appropriate.
Superintendent Frank Roberson reiterated several times that all the parents’ opinions would be taken into account when his staff makes a recommendation for the Board of Education to vote on next month.
Board of Education member Jimmy Atkins said he has many of the same concerns expressed by parents. However, he pointed to the magnet schools in Richmond County that blend middle- and high-school students with few disciplinary issues – even the alternative program houses grades 6-12 cohesively, he said.
Atkins said the board members are taking all these concerns seriously and have not made up their minds on a plan yet. But with a budget crisis in Richmond County, he said, something has to change.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to do something with enrollment going down at so many different schools,” Atkins said. “At this point, we have to do what makes the most sense for the district, but most importantly what makes the most sense for the children.”