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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2006
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Merging schools, violence?
Poll of Lawrence high school students shows concerns about consolidation

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

MOULTON — Increased violence is the No. 1 concern of Lawrence County students who were surveyed about the possible consolidation of high schools.

The school board recently agreed to pursue a school realignment plan. The board has not approved a specific plan, but most board members said they are open to consolidating the seven county high schools into one, two or three schools. All plans would include the construction of a new high school.

Miranda Ball, a graduate student at The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, surveyed 502 high school students to gauge their feelings on the issue for an education leadership course.

Ball, the mother of a 3-year-old girl and the Lawrence County Public Library director, presented the results to Superintendent Dexter Rutherford.

The survey asked students to list the positive and negative aspects of realignment and the things they believe school officials should consider.

Fifty percent of all students surveyed said fighting was a negative aspect. Rutherford said he understood all of the students’ concerns but offered an alternative outlook.

“I give our students more credit than that,” he said. “We do have a strong sense of school pride here, but it’s not a Hatfield-McCoy kind of thing going on across the county. Our students know each other.”

Rutherford said a good example of the communities’ ability to coexist in the same environment is the absence of fighting at area sports tournaments.

Athletes from all the schools compete against each other at the annual Jesse Owens track meet, county basketball tournament and various other events throughout the year.

Each event draws friends and family from every community, and there is rarely a problem with violence, said Rutherford.

He added that most crime-related issues such as assault or drugs could potentially become less of a threat with the construction of a new school.

Increased security

“A new facility would be designed with security in mind,” said Rutherford. “Drugs and fighting are legitimate concerns, but could be addressed by architectural designs and security cameras.”

The school system has two school resource officers who divide their time among the seven high schools.

If the board approves consolidation, Rutherford said, the schools would have an officer on campus nearly all the time.

Overcrowding

Thirteen percent of the students said they fear overcrowding, the second largest concern according to the survey.

Rutherford, who urged board members to adopt a two-school plan at the Dec. 11 board meeting, said the new facility would be large enough to house the increase in students.

Rutherford's two-school plan would consist of East Lawrence High School and a new school in the western part of the county.

All Speake High students and current East Lawrence students, totaling about 700, would attend East Lawrence. Students at the five other schools, totaling about 900, would attend the new school.

"If we tried to put those 900 students into one of our current buildings, it would definitely be overcrowded," said Rutherford. "But a new building would be large enough for the number of students and hopefully large enough to account for future growth."

Extracurricular activities

Students were divided on whether they believed consolidation would help or hurt extracurricular activities and athletics programs. Nineteen percent listed it as a positive aspect, while 12 percent said it was a negative aspect.

"Kids that have starting points in sports may not have a start point anymore," wrote an East Lawrence High sophomore.

"That is a legitimate concern, but we have to consider the benefits," said Rutherford. "We could go further. We would no longer have seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders competing in varsity football, but instead, have a solid ninth-grade program and a B-team."

The schools could also add programs like golf, band or a rodeo club like the one offered in Colbert County, said Rutherford.

More classes

The main benefit of consolidation, according to Rutherford, is the ability to offer a broader curriculum. The county is paying teachers to offer core classes at each of the schools, leaving no money for anything except a "bare-minimum curriculum."

If the schools consolidated, teachers would be redistributed to teach elective or Advanced Placement courses, said Rutherford.

Seven percent of the surveyed students said more/better classes was a positive aspect of realignment. Other positive aspects mentioned in the surveys were more friends, more opportunities for scholarships and better facilities.

State bond issue

Lawrence officials have debated consolidation for more than 20 years, but the debate has been reignited recently by a possible state bond issue for school capital projects. Gov. Bob Riley told school officials in December that the Legislature will likely approve about $1 billion to be distributed throughout the state in the spring of 2007.

"If that comes, I feel that the current board will approve a realignment plan," said Rutherford. "The money will have to be spent on capital projects, and it would be a long time before we'd see that kind of money again."

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