LIVE OAK, Fla. — Questions were raised in a pair of community listening sessions last week on school configuration.
There were far fewer answers provided in the small input forums that drew around 20 parents and community members total at the Suwannee Primary School (Aug. 13) and Suwannee Elementary School (Aug. 15).
“I’m not here to give you the answers because we don’t have the answers,” said Walter Boatright, one of the five committee chairs that led discussions on the various topics that the Suwannee County School District must answer before moving forward with the plan to reconfigure the three elementary schools in Live Oak prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year.
That was a common theme from Superintendent Ted Roush and the other administrators at the listening sessions which followed parents filling out surveys at the schools during Meet the Teacher in relation to the reconfiguration. Roush said approximately 700 surveys were submitted.
While the Suwannee County School Board approved reconfiguration in June to make SPS, SES and Suwannee Intermediate Schools all Pre-K through fifth grades by next year, administrators said the process is just beginning and answers are few.
“Any idea that this has already been formulated, the plans have already been drafted, the decisions have already been made, nothing could be further from the truth,” Roush said. “We truly want to hear and gather input.”
Currently, SPS houses Pre-K through first grade, SES holds second and third grade and fourth and fifth graders attend SIS. That configuration causes near-constant upheaval for students, something the district is hoping to get rid of. Roush added that in the state, only Suwannee and Baker County have that school configuration still in play.
“Listen, transition is difficult for adults,” Debbie Land said. “That’s why we have this in place. We believe in our hearts that it’s not good for just a typical child, for the gifted child, for the child with disabilities, transition is not the best thing.”
Tim Alcorn, school board member from District 3, said his children went through the school system when there was just Suwannee Elementary East and Suwannee Elementary West. He said his grandchildren are now going through the system and he feels like they have been hurt by the constant change.
“This group is looking out for your children, I promise you,” he said. “I personally as a grandfather and a father, I like it better where these kids will have stability. I think, personally, my grandchildren have been done an injustice by this moving around every couple years.
“I believe if you give this a chance, you will see your children more comfortable and I think their grades will improve.”
The five board planning areas the district is looking at are enrollment, attendance and safety with Malcolm Hines leading that committee; human resources and personnel with Boatright heading that committee; student support services (ELL, ESE, gifted, etc.) led by Land; administration services (facilities, IT, food service, transportation) with Bill Brothers chairing the committee; and curriculum design and development, with Amy Boggus serving as committee chair.
Hines said among the topics they are looking at in regards to enrollment and attendance includes how to make the process fair and equitable in granting parents and students their choice of which of the themed schools (possibilities include innovation and technology; creativity, arts and design; and career, industrial and civic leadership) to attend, at what point should the school allow students to switch schools and should good attendance be rewarded in determining school placement if there is a waiting list for one of the schools.
Another part of the enrollment policy that will be designed is how to place students if no choice is made.
An additional point made was that there should possibly be a limit on the number of times parents are able to switch their children’s schools.
Boatright said his committee’s task will really heat up when all the others are dying down due to the nature of human resources — teachers resign or retire — but the district will work to ensure that there is a well-rounded staff at all three schools.
During the first session, one parent said the district should give consideration to leaving teachers that have demonstrated a strong working relationship together in a team setting in the same schools so that relationship can remain.
In the discussion about student support services, Land said the district will continue to provide all the services it currently does.
“I don’t anticipate a lot of changes that we will see,” Land said.
Among the areas that Brothers covered is the need to make sure each school has age-appropriate playground equipment and tables that fit all students in the cafeteria. Another facility issue that a parent brought up was the lack of bathrooms in the classrooms at SIS and the requirement for those for children up to the third grade. Brothers and Roush said that was part of the work that has to be done at SIS is to make sure the classrooms in that building with bathrooms are aligned with those classes that require them.
Brothers added that instructional time may be lengthened with the reconfiguration and the start and end times would likely be staggered to help address transportation concerns.
“I’m out in the mornings and it’s amazing to me the amount of traffic because I didn’t realize so many people lived in Suwannee County,” Hines said, adding that could be reduced by allowing parents to send multiple children to the same school.
During the discussion on curriculum, Boggus said the themes offered could allow for the introduction of clubs at the various schools. She added that currently only SIS offers art, while all three have music as well as media/library time.
One of the questions that arose was where would the additional time come from for the special themed subjects since all three schools must still offer the core content of english language arts, math, science and social studies.
Administrators did say that once finalized, the curriculum offered at the three schools would be available as part of a narrative about what is offered at the three schools in order to help parents and students choose which school they want to attend.
“As a parent, what I want to see is, ‘Man, I love all three of these options. I want all three of these options, but here’s my 1A, 1B, 1C. Rather than a first, second, third.
“So that’s really the goal is to select those things that are really exciting to people.”