In a neighborhood where many families watch their kids leave the door on foot to go to class in the mornings, parents say even the thought of closing their school is a blow to a community.
Rumors have swirled for years that National Hills Elementary School’s low enrollment would make it a candidate for closure. But now parents are hoping the Richmond County Board of Education will reconsider.
“For years and years the conversation has always been are we going to close National Hills?” said parent and business owner Pam Wilkins. “This whole entire room knows that we escaped the bullet many times and every time we escaped it everyone goes, whew, we dodged another bullet this year. So for all of us it’s hard.”
More than 100 parents and community members attended the Richmond County Board of Education’s final rightsizing town hall meeting Thursday, which focused on the proposal to close National Hills and merge those students with Garrett Elementary School in 2015. When National Hills’ enrollment flatlined at 225 and with the recently renovated Garrett sitting less than a mile away, officials said the merger makes sense to save money and provide more academic opportunities for students.
“We think the two schools merged together with increased academic programs will give you the opportunity to have one of the finer elementary schools, if not in the county, then in the state,” said Bill Montgomery, a Philadelphia-based education consultant hired to evaluate the school system’s building usages.
The consultants proposed six other 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; build a new K-8 school for west Augusta; and add a sixth grade to A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said his staff will use feedback from the four community meetings to develop a recommendation for the board to vote on March 11.
Those who spoke at the National Hills meeting were largely against the idea of closing their school. Several worried about what would happen to the building and how putting 500 students at Garrett would affect class sizes and education quality.
“I’ve loved National Hills, we fought this battle back in the late ’70s and early ’80s about closing National Hills,” said Jerry Pardue, who served as principal from 1970 to 1994 “I hope whenever this time comes that it will not be closed.”
Mittie Connors and others complained that Garrett’s playground is not sufficient for the current students, let alone adding 225 more.
Garrett currently has a gated area for younger grades with matted floors and toys as well as an outdoor climbing set for the older grades.
Principal Doug Frierson said his PTA has raised $15,000 for a new playground and that the school is working on a way to raise local funds to build a walking track, an amphitheater and gardens behind the building.
Frierson said that is part of a larger effort to make Garrett a community school that welcomes the neighborhood to be more active in the educational setting.
“That’s the kind of school Garrett is,” he said. “It’s all about family here.”
Debbie Alexander, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, said the proposed merger would also add more academic programs to the school. With more teachers and faculty, the school could use more local dollars to expand its arts infusion program and grow a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics focus.
Media Specialist Leslie Olig also said the proposal would also allow her to work full time at the merged school, giving more attention to students and training to teachers on technology. Because state policy only allows media specialists to work full time in schools of 350 students or larger, Olig has to split her time between the two small campuses.
However, parents like Maria Nicholson said they do not want a school as large as 500 students. They also questioned why the board spent about $5 million renovating National Hills in 2010.
“When you knew down the road that you were probably going to close the school, why waste that much money,” Nicholson asked.