If C-1 superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter gets his way, the vacant Ervin Middle School will re-open for early childhood programming by the start of the 2014-2015 school year.
In addition to his plan to provide early childhood education for each of the approximately 600 four-year olds in the district, Carpenter also proposed turning Hickman Mills into a Freshman Center and creating a new, off-campus alternative education program during an aggressive "Moving Forward" presentation he showed the C-1 Board of Education at their Wednesday, February 12 work session.
Carpenter’s proposal would alter the building layout of the Hickman Mills district for the second time since 2010, when Hickman Mills High School was consolidated with Ruskin and transformed into a junior high. Just four years later, the district is considering another relatively radical change. Under Carpenter’s plan, the Freda Markley Center and Ervin (expected to be renamed the Ervin Early Learning Center) will house pre-school and kindergarten students. The district’s eight elementary schools will serve all first through sixth graders, Smith-Hale Middle School would serve seventh and eighth graders, the renamed Hickman Mills Freshman Center would serve ninth graders, and Ruskin High School would continue to house grades 10-12.
If passed by the school board during the Thursday, February 20 regular session, the proposed projects would be rolled into the district’s pre-existing blueprint and implemented in time for the beginning of the school year. Dr. Carpenter believes that the district cannot afford to wait.
"I believe this is responsible; I believe this is prudent; and I believe that our students can’t wait for us to figure this out," said Carpenter.
The biggest proposal revolves around Ervin, which will need a $7.73 million renovation in order to house students by August. Hollis and Miller, an area architectural firm, inspected Ervin before the work session and came away thinking the school could be ready for the first day of school in August.
"Overall, the facility is still in good shape for renovation," said John Brown, a partner at Hollis and Miller Architects. "One of the key things is that there are critical needs with the roofing, and there are some minor ADA compliance issues."
A preliminary timeline presented by Hollis and Miller anticipates that an official proposal for Ervin could be passed by the March 12 work session. In that event, general construction could begin April 18, construction could be completed by August 1, staff could move into the renovated facility by August 6, and school could open normally by August 20.
"We’re going to put together a team of about six to nine people that will really focus to get this project done," added Brown. "We’ve looked at some of the key big issues up front to make sure the building was where it needed to be moving forward."
Aside from an accelerated construction schedule, financing the renovation at Ervin was also discussed at the meeting. Because the administration has asked to have to renovations completed before next school year, there is not enough time for the C-1 district to request a bond from taxpayers. Instead, Carpenter’s plan calls for the district to pursue lease financing for Ervin, a maneuver that would allow the district to maintain their aggressive timetable.
"In essence, you’re borrowing money, and the financing is secured by the actual buildings in the district." said Greg Bricker, an executive vice president for the George K. Baum and Company investment bank, in explaining lease financing. "To meet the timeline that was described to you using the traditional form of debt is not a possibility."
Bricker noted that the $7,730,000 bond could hypothetically be issued as quickly as May 1, 2014. The district would pay the loan back over twenty years, in average annual installments of $589,644.72. If the district were unable to make a payment, however, they could potentially lose access to Ervin.
"The hammer that we have is that we will have, in effect, a mortgage," said Bricker. "If you don’t make your payment, you don’t get to use your building."
In addition to the re-opening of Ervin, Carpenter envisions the creation of a Freshmen Center at Hickman Mills Junior High. In his argument, the superintendent cited research that reveals that students are 3-5 times more likely to fail a class in ninth grade than students in any other grade.
One glance at Hickman Mills’ internal statistics bears out the trend. Of 483 total freshmen in the Hickman Mills district, 71 had at least one F as of the board meeting. Ninety-three students, or roughly 21% of ninth graders, had at least two F’s.
Carpenter says that the Freshman Center would help deter these issues. He told the board that the center would focus on the unique needs of the freshman class, provide necessary support, hold a required freshman seminar, and offer career exploration courses. Carpenter also thinks creating a freshman center will ultimately help Ruskin High School’s graduation rate.
"You’re not going to head off to Ruskin two credits behind," he said.
Another way Carpenter thinks he can get Hickman Mills students on track is through a proposed new alternative education program known as Ombudsman. The Ombudsman program is a national alternative education program dedicated to reducing the stigma surrounding alternative schools and getting students back on track. Carpenter told the board that the district’s current alternative education program is lacking. In his presentation he cited disruptive behavior, failing grades, truancy, teen parenting, and low retention of assigned students among the issues with the status quo. According to Carpenter, Ombudsman would fight those problems.
"If the board moves in this direction, we’ve taken a great step in the right direction, according to what I believe as an educator," he said.
Carpenter believes in providing a high-quality, rigorous curriculum with the district’s alternative program, and focusing on getting more students through Ombudsman and back on a path towards graduation. He thinks that students are currently being underserved through the district’s alternative education programs.
"I have a problem with preparing a student for the GED in grade 10," said Carpenter. "I’ll go on the record; I have a problem with that."
Phyllis Lucia and Fred Thompson were at the meeting on behalf of Ombudsman, and took some time to explain their program in detail. The pair described a structured, supportive learning environment in which each student works at his or her own pace. The program utilizes a blended learning method, and celebrates the gains of each individual student, creating a positive environment for a class of students who may not have that type of positive structure anywhere else in their lives.
"Everyone deserves a second, and sometimes, even a third chance. This is an opportunity that we want to provide students," said Thompson. "Once that light bulb comes on, now we’re on a path moving forward."
Thompson and Lucia don’t consider placement in the Ombudsman program to be a permanent sentence, either. Instead, the goal is to get those students recovered academically and back in normal classes, if at all possible.
"Our goal for these students is to return them to the district on or closer to grade level," said Lucia. "We want to show students that what they are learning inside the classroom is what they will need and use outside the classroom."
Board member Dan Osman noted that he was impressed with the Ombudsman program when he saw it in action during a trip earlier this month to observe Philadelphia public schools.
"I was impressed. It worked really well," said Osman. "Just within this same school year, there was a phenomenal difference between what they came in at and what they were doing mid-semester."
The board will have their opportunity to adopt some or all of Carpenter’s presented projects when they reconvene tonight, February 20, for their regular board meeting. The board appeared cautiously optimistic about the district’s intended direction after Carpenter’s presentation.
"I was very concerned with the direction that Ervin was going to take," said board member Breman Anderson, Jr. "(But) it appears that we’re going to take that building from an eyesore to a valuable asset. I’m very comfortable with that."
As it relates to an expansion of early childhood education at Hickman Mills, board members Dan Osman and Eric Lowe came out in support of a renovated Ervin.
"I think this is a tremendous idea for our community," Lowe said. "For a long time, I heard complaints about students even arriving in kindergarten not prepared to learn."
"I’ve done the research between districts that do Pre-K and districts that don’t," Osman added. "The disparity between the two, you just don’t make that up, ever."