Decatur: Superintendent Edwards recalls “A system of schools.”

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt October 31, 2013
Westchester Elementary School, current site of CSD central offices.

Westchester Elementary School, current site of CSD central offices.

City Schools of Decatur Superintendent Phyllis Edwards said there’s only one guarantee about redrawing school attendance zones: it won’t be popular.

“Let’s be honest. Nobody’s going to be happy,” Edwards told me in a recent interview. “It’s not going to go perfectly well. Somebody will be unhappy.”

Unhappy has started to organize. A parents group, spearheaded by CSD parents Todd and Laura Cooper, is asking the school system to “Press pause” on its rezoning plan. The Coopers think CSD can come up with a longer-term plan to keep up with exploding enrollment.

“We urge our school board to temporarily halt the rezoning process to consider a more comprehensive, long-term solution,” the Coopers said in an open letter to CSD parents and school officials. “We are grateful for our children’s exceptional education, but they and their families also need stability.”

Edwards said the school system needs to move forward with redrawing the enrollment boundaries for its four elementary schools to make room for one more. The system plans to reopen Westchester Elementary in 2014. It currently serves as the CSD central office.

The BOE closed it in 2004 due to low enrollment.

I dropped by Westchester one morning to ask Edwards a few questions about the rezoning. A big picture of the current zoning map hangs in the lobby. It has the city divided into four quadrants. It was only a few years ago, in 2003, when the city had the opposite problem it has today. Elementary enrollment was too low. Now the system’s K-3 enrollment has jumped 75 percent since 2006, putting another 600 students into the city’s classrooms.

I had not received the Coopers’ letter before I spoke to Edwards, but our interview did cover many of the issues the Coopers raised.

Edwards said one of the main reasons she’d like to get the rezoning wrapped up by the end of December – and she concedes it may not happen – is to give parents enough time to prepare.

“Doing it this way is a lot less angst than waiting until March,” Edwards said.

One of the many concerns raised by parents is the ability of students to walk to their school. There are sidewalks alongside Scott Boulevard, the busy street in front of Westchester. Edwards said before the system closed Westchester, kids walked to school there, too.

Edwards said there isn’t much the school system can do to change Westchester’s location. She said the system will provide crossing guards to look after the children walking to Westchester.

The Coopers’ letter questions the role and purpose of the 4/5 Academy within City Schools of Decatur.

When Edwards arrived in 2003, one of the things she did was institute the 4/5 Academy and make the remaining four schools K-3 while turning College Heights into an Early Childhood Learning Center. (The President of the United States decided to get his picture taken at College Heights, as you’ll recall.)

Edwards said she did this at the direction of the Board of Education, which tasked her with developing a strategic plan.

“There were a lot of talks within the community about the little elementary schools,” Edwards said.  “They were very, very, small and with the amount of money that was going to run the elementary schools, it got to the point where the millage rate was going up, up, up.”

The Coopers said turning College Heights into a K-5 elementary school should be part of a discussion about long term planning.

“Is there a possibility of turning College Heights into an elementary school, or changing F.A.V.E (4/5 Academy) and all the elementary schools into K-5 schools? These seem like questions worth exploring before we uproot communities from their established schools,” the Coopers wrote.

The Coopers’ letter laments the “Us-vs-Them” mentality that inevitably becomes a part of rezoning discussions.

Edwards said resolving some of the “Us-vs-Them” mentality was one of the reasons she suggested creating a K-3 system that feeds into 4/5.

“What I saw was, we had eight little schools doing their own thing,” Edwards said. “You didn’t have a school system. You had a system of schools.”

She said the school system was divided by the railroad tracks and by race. Prior to the 4/5 school, students were leaving the system after elementary school, Edwards said. Edwards believes that creating a kind of pre-middle school better prepared elementary students for the transition to Renfroe Middle.

It also cut down on discipline problems at the school, she said.

“Pulling them all together at the 4/5 made a huge difference at the middle school,” she said. “When I first came here, I would get calls (about kids fighting) almost every day.”

Edwards said as far as she knows, she is the first superintendent in Georgia to create a 4/5 school.

This will not be the final word on the rezoning, Edwards said. It’s ultimately a school board decision and there will be another community meeting at a date to be determined.

Edwards said in her experience, the school board doesn’t always approve things as quickly as she’d like. She wants a head start getting the system ready to reopen Westchester.

“I’m trying to give myself room,” she told me.

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  • Bill

    Exploding school enrollment and unchecked development is a surefire recipe for disaster. CSD is Decatur’s biggest asset and its most dangerous liability. The road we’re on is headed towards a cliff and the brakes are out on our Bluebird bus.

    • That bad, Bill?

    • Eric

      This is the kind of panic response that hurts, rather than helps, the situation. I could pull out the old “leave if you don’t like it” argument but the better response is to invite Bill to get involved in the discussion to help make it better. Don’t sit on the sidelines, even if you are not a parent. This is not the train wreck Bill envisions; it is an opportunity to provide intelligent, calm feedback to Ms. Edwards and the school board.

  • Decatur Mom

    Have you asked Dr. Edwards to respond to the Coopers’ letter? Is it possible to consider other alternatives to the one’s offered at the most recent public meeting?

    • I haven’t. The timing of the letter and the interview made that difficult. Fortunately, the interview did cover a lot of ground. I’ll be following this issue and getting reactions about this letter and other comments made by parents.

  • Diane Loupe

    I was a substitute teacher at Westchester the day they announced it would close, and I was on the PTA. I took two children through Renfroe, going through four or five principals in two years. With all the small elementary schools, there were definitely “have” and “have not” schools, and that has largely disappeared, and I would hesitate to support creating those divisions again. Bruce Roaden did an awesome job at Renfroe, and I hear he’s doing great at FAVE. I think the growth of the school system is a testament to its quality. What ever happened to the idea of opening up theme schools as an alternative to redistricting? So, maybe Westchester could be an arts magnet, or a math and science magnet, so that students would choose to attend, negating the need to change the boundaries. Also, while some students did walk to Westchester, none did from my neighborhood, which is now in Oakhurst.

  • Jeff G

    Where might I find the open letter from the Coopers? Was it published online somewhere?

  • Living in Decatur

    Was there any discussion within your interview about the plan to hive off the top section of the Winnona Park community — who currently live 3 blocks from school and are able and do walk to school and under the plans presented thus so far will attend a school over a mile away and have to negotiate busy roads and a railroad to cross? Talk about splitting a community! And such a tiny section. This may also affect property values …

    • Didn’t get that deep down into the details of each plan. I’ll be happy to follow up for you, though.

  • Living in Decatur

    That would be great – can’t seem to get a sense of why this has happened. WP is such a strong community and it looks like it is all for the sake of 15 family units that by all accounts is actually incorrect data. Would also be good to know if the kids who are currently attending schools but live in areas where they get rezoned if they are able to stay where they are at if they so choose. The opening of WC looks to be set mid school year and to move kids – especially 3rd Graders would be detrimental to them I am sure.

  • Pat Tatro

    I am the parent of a child that will be attending Westchester Elementary for 3rd grade. I do not relish the change. It will be hard to leave the school he has attended since Kindergarten, however. Change is a part of life. Given that this is going to happen, I want to invest my energy now in helping Westchester to the be BEST K-3. We need to get going now to help our Westchester school prepare for the students, develop a PTA, work on the upgrades that need to happen …

    My concern is more on the 4/5 Academy receiving the bolus of children and not being able to accomodate them. Same holds true for Renfroe and the High School. What is the plan for expanding these schools to accomodate the enourmous growth?

  • Sharing what we sent to Dr. Edwards this morning. I see that we left out that we have 5 children in CSD.
    Dr. Edwards,
    Thank you for your note today, posted to the CSD website and sent to parents. As parents of kids age 17 – 4 we see first hand the incredible vision of the K-3 and 4/5 academy model. Of our three kids who are middle school age or older, middle school has been a resoundingly positive endeavor. Integrating all schools in the 4th grade is brilliant. As parents we always want for our kids that which we did not have, and a positive middle school experience is just that.
    Thank you for staying the course.
    Lisa Ciancio & Christopher Gagnon

  • Marianne S

    When Westchester was closed, many parents felt the same as Todd and Laura Cooper do now. But, you know what? That change that everyone feared created the system of schools you all love so much today. Change is not always a bad thing.

    Yes, there will be some children that can no longer walk to school but there are kids that can’t walk now. Most children can walk to their school in a city as small as Decatur, it just may be a few blocks further away.

    At least they are not closing your much loved school, and, you are actually regaining a wonderful school. Westchester is one of the best facilities in the city of Decatur. And, if your child is lucky enough to attend Westchester, you may be surprised by how happy you are to be there.

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