1 high school?
Consolidation idea becomes a discussion item as competition gets bigger
By Bayne Hughes
When some fans watch rivals Austin and Decatur high schools on the court or on the field, they wonder what it would be like if they were no longer rivals.
What would Austin’s powerhouse band be like with an influx of musicians from a Decatur high band that’s beginning to have its own success?
So far the idea of one high school for the city of Decatur is only a discussion item over a morning cup of coffee or pitched as a possibility at a lunch chat. The idea hasn’t been discussed seriously by decision-makers.
Where did the idea come from? Assistant Superintendent Ed Nichols said Decatur residents see what’s happening throughout North Alabama. He says there are positives and negatives, and while he doesn’t take a position for or against, he believes it’s an idea worth discussing.
Austin Athletic Booster Club President Joel Sandlin has heard the talk and doesn’t like the idea. He briefly attended Decatur High and his wife graduated from Decatur. His son attends Austin. Like many, he enjoys the usually friendly River City rivalry and the traditions that both schools built.
Tradition and ownership of their alumni would be the two major barriers to a merger.
“Personally, I like the idea of Austin, Decatur and Decatur Heritage (private school),” Sandlin said.
In 2002-03, Florence merged Coffee and Bradshaw. Gadsden followed, merging Litchfield, Emma Sansom and Gadsden at the start of the 2006-07 school year. Both cities now have one high school.
Austin, with just under 1,500 students, is in Class 6A, the largest athletic classification in the state, but can it compete when high schools like Hoover, Spain Park and Bob Jones boast more than 2,000 students? Sparkman has about 1,800.
“We have to compete against these schools in sports and academics,” Nichols said.
Decatur High School struggles to keep its enrollment near 1,000.
The school is playing its first year in Class 5A, after spending time as the smallest school in 6A. The Decatur school board has been reluctant to adjust school zones and balance the enrollment between the two schools.
“The trend is really toward bigger schools,” Austin Principal Don Snow said. “We’ve got really good schools right now, but, if we put the two together, we’d really have a super, top-notched, great school.”
Snow said the Decatur school board has to balance its support for both schools to keep both happy.
The board doesn’t build a building or spend money at one school without making sure the other gets something of equal value.
Nichols said the school system has several big projects that it needs, or wants to do, at both schools. Decatur High needs a new band room, air-conditioning and heating system, and roof repairs. Austin has had ongoing roofing problems for years, and the school board would like to replace the math and English buildings. Both schools’ gymnasiums are too small.
At the Dec. 12 meeting, the school board said it would support Austin boosters in raising money to build a $1 million, multi-purpose athletic practice facility.
Ogle Stadium, which both schools use, also needs a major overhaul.
“We could combine the money for these projects and focus on one new, state-of-the-art high school,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the idea would be a good one only if it came with a new school building, complete with athletic facilities like a football stadium and baseball, soccer and softball fields.
At a time when city leaders are looking for new ways to re-energize city growth, a new high school would become another attraction. John Seymour, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said a new high school could be an even bigger booster than the Banks-Caddell Elementary School that opened in August.
“There are a lot of people excited about the new school,” Seymour said of Banks-Caddell. “That’s a pretty impressive building. New schools make an area an easier sale when you’re recruiting.”
Most agree that the board couldn’t build the new school on either of the current sites to get acceptance from the two communities. Point Mallard would be the only property that would come close to the size needed in Southeast Decatur.
Several suggested the Lurleen B. Wallace Center property on U.S. 31. The school system used that property as a temporary home last year when building Banks-Caddell and remodeling Leon Sheffield and Benjamin Davis Elementary Schools.
Other areas mentioned were Wilson-Morgan Park, a place developers wanted recently for its commercial value; the fairgrounds off Spring Avenue; and undeveloped property off Beltline Road between Old Moulton Road and Alabama 24.
“You would want something that’s as centrally located as possible, but you need the room to grow, too,” Seymour said.
The question, however, is whether people would be willing to commute farther, possibly across town, so their children could attend a newly combined high school. Except for citizens living in the outskirts of the city, most now live within minutes of either high school.
Academics is the most important consideration when looking at the possibility of one combined high school. Nichols said one large school might allow students to take some classes that wouldn’t otherwise be available, something that’s often a problem in honors classes.
“If Austin has seven students that want to take a class, that might not be enough to offer the class,” Nichols said. “But, if you add six or seven more from Decatur High, then you have enough for a class.”
Some Decatur students now have to go to Austin to participate in JROTC or take auto technology, while Austin students would have to go to Decatur High if they want to take the shop class.
Decatur High Principal Mike Ward said a larger number of students makes it harder for teachers to establish as many individual connections as they could at a smaller school.
“Teachers know a lot of students who they don’t teach, but, if you almost double the number, it would be harder to get to know everyone,” Ward said.
Ward said the important thing would be to keep class sizes from getting too big.
Ward said safety considerations are as important as academics. Now teachers know who their students are. With more students, he said, it would be difficult to know when a stranger walks on campus. He said the design of the new school would be an important safety factor.
While the school would need only one principal, the board couldn’t reduce the number of assistant principals and might need more school resource officers.
One issue in merging schools is whether the students could set aside old rivalries to start new traditions. Since many of the students already attend church together, work together and play in summer leagues together, most educators said they don’t believe this would be a problem.
When people think of the one-high-school idea, athletics is the first part of the discussion. Nichols said people should consider what a basketball team with Decatur’s Rico Pickett and G Redus and Austin’s Jay Sears would have looked like this year.
“You have would have more talent to chose from, so your teams would be even deeper athletically,” Nichols said.
While having more athletes might be great for football, Sandlin said, a combined high school would leave a lot of students on the sidelines.
“We already have a lot of kids who don’t make it,” Sandlin said.
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