The highly controversial school consolidation issue here in Robeson County has primarily focused on the cost and cost savings of school consolidation. It is now time for us to turn our focus to a major discussion on educational quality and school consolidation — the most critical of issues.
The only consolidation plan presently under consideration will totally reconstruct our school system from a predominately three-tier education system of elementary, middle, and high schools to a majority two-tier system of K-8 and 9-12 grade schools. This would be the most significant shift in our schools in 40 to 60 years.
If school consolidation were to be approved now, it would occur without any significant deliberations of the pros and cons of making such a major change and on how to make it in a way that ensured the improvement of our school’s educational quality.
There is a formal, K-8 national school reform model that has certain standards that need to be followed if the educational quality of consolidating elementary and middle schools is to be improved. Just building new buildings and placing more children in them at a younger age is a way to ensure that educational quality improvement will not happen.
We as a county have allowed financial interests to pressure, minimize and neglect educational interests. By its own admission, the architectural firm has built few K-8 schools. There is a major education and training process with serious deliberations that need to occur by and among all parties about the K-8 consolidation and national school reform model, particularly among all our educators, before any more decisions are made.
Here are four of the major standards for designing and evaluating K-8 schools based on the recent, national K-8 school reform model and the shift from a two-tier to a three-tier education system.
— In the national model, K-8 schools extend the intimate school environment and culture of elementary schools to our children through 8th grade. Middle schools become more like elementary schools, not the other way around. This takes major, upfront planning and re-education of principals and teachers.
2. — In the national model, K-8 schools preserve neighborhood schools. In a K-8 school, there are fewer children in each grade than in a conventional middle school. The overall size of schools is kept small as a central component of improving the quality of education. To accomplish this successfully, many more K-8 schools will need to be built in Robeson County than presently proposed. This is a critical issue that must be addressed before any further decisions are made.
— In the national K-8 model, there is just one major school transition for children between the K-8 school and the 9-12 school. We need to ensure that all children attending a K-8 school feed into the same high school so that their childhood relationships and athletic teams are not disrupted in the transition to high school. We have five major high school feeder systems. The number of K-8 schools and their size needs to be determined within each separate high school feeder system.
— In the national K-8 model, it is recommended that the consolidation into K-8 schools occur one school at a time. It is done in a methodical, slow manner, because it requires creating an entirely different educational culture. We do have some K-8 schools remaining in Robeson County, including Magnolia, Prospect, and Fairgrove. They also need to be assessed to ensure that educational quality is being met and that, if a new system is created, that their students follow each other to the same high schools. Perhaps some of these schools are too large as well as many of the K-8 schools being proposed.
In spite of all the politics and pressure experienced over the past year in relation to school consolidation, we can still, together, make lemonade out of lemons.
Here are proposed steps:
— Everyone take a “breather” and seat the new school board this month. Under significant pressure, the existing school board has involved the public more and raised some of the serious questions needed to be addressed prior to moving forward. So, give the new school board the respect and responsibility to take a fresh look at all considerations.
— Utilize all of the professional — and free — services of our state’s educational and financial resources to assist PSRC in reviewing all of the options, including the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of State Treasurer.
— Contract with two, national K-8 school reform model consultants to assist all of our educators in a process to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the K-8 reform model and if this major restructuring is desired in order to improve educational quality. Request that NCDPI cover these costs.
— Have PSRC engage the parents and community in these deliberations as begun since March, including public meetings with education consultants.
— Following this process, our school board can review all options and make a recommendation to our county commissioners for funding new school construction in a methodical and responsible manner.
In the end, we can and will have new school construction in Robeson County. We have the ear of our legislators and state government. Our new school board will be in charge. Let them do their job. Back off on the political and financial interests. Involve our principals and educators. Engage our parents, grandparents, and community members. We can still get it right. Then we can stand proud together and demonstrate to our state and nation that people in the most ethnically diverse, rural county in the USA know how to do their business together with a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
Mac Legerton is executive of the Center of Community Action. He lives in Pembroke.