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At his State of the Schools address Feb. 26, Madison City Superintendent Robby Parker notes MCS' recent accolades before explaining what the district must do to maintain that level of excellence. (Record Photo/Kendyl Hollingsworth)

Superintendent Parker discusses new schools, zoning at State of the Schools

MADISON — In addition to celebrating the many recent achievements of Madison City Schools, Superintendent Robby Parker shared what’s in store for the school system at the State of the Schools event Feb. 26.

One of the most difficult—and high-profile—challenges for Madison City Schools recently has been figuring out how to maintain excellence as they grow with the city.

With such achievements as receiving all A’s on their state report cards and all schools ranking high in various categories, Parker said these accomplishments are made possible by the students, parents, staff and the “courage” of the board of education in making decisions that push MCS to greater heights.

“We want to excel in academics, we want to excel in the arts, we want to excel in athletics,” Parker said. “I’m so proud of our kids because they do every one of those.”

To maintain that excellence, however, change is mandatory. Parker said things like creating a strong foundation through the pre-K program and continuing to expand academics at all schools are part of this plan. New schools and current school additions are also priorities, though it will take more funding to accomplish all of these.

According to Parker’s presentation, MCS has continuously grown by more and more students over the last few years. The state funds the school system’s teachers based on the prior school year’s enrollment, and every 150 students costs the district about $560,000 in local funds for the current year, which prevents them from lowering class sizes and offering additional programs.

“To stay (highly ranked), we’ve got to find another revenue source,” Parker said. “That is hard for me to say, guys.”

NEW SCHOOLS

According to Parker, MCS’ most recent growth number since May 2018 is 567 students, which is larger than the student population at three of Madison’s elementary schools. “That’s significant,” he said. More than half of that number are new elementary students, and more than 100 more are new high school students.

Parker presented a few options for handling the growth of Madison City Schools over the next couple years. While a new elementary school and middle school are inevitable—though a specific location has not been set in stone for those—the question remains whether the high schools should just be expanded for now or if the school system should go ahead with a third high school.

For the new elementary school, planned to hold 1,000 students, Parker said he is proposing that it be built on 20 acres of land they already own next to the Kroger on Wall Triana Highway. The alternative would be to build somewhere in Limestone County.

Parker said the “vast majority” of those now zoned for West Madison Elementary would attend this new school, and more students would come from other schools such as Mill Creek, which is already overcrowded. The current West Madison will be converted into a pre-K center.

If the new school is built in Limestone County, it would mean that West Madison would likely be split up into several pieces. “If you’re part of the West Madison community—I’m just being very frank with you—there will be no more West Madison community,” Parker said. In addition, a new elementary school in Limestone County would likely be built in a cotton field and left about 50 percent empty. Parker said he feels that a school next to Kroger would better serve current citizens than a school in Limestone County.

The proposed property tax increase would support the construction of a new elementary and middle school. “I don’t want to have a major rezone for one year and then rezone again when we get a new school put up,” Parker said. “I don’t think any of you want to do that. If the tax passes, my recommendation is that we move to get these schools built for 2021. If not, we’re going to have to do some rezoning.”

The elementary school would need to reach completion by the first half of 2021 to be open for students that fall. Parker said even after this elementary school is built, Madison will need to build another a few years later.

Parker is proposing a similar plan for the new middle school—which will hold 1,200 students in grades six to eight—with the alternative also being to build in Limestone County. According to Parker’s plans, the ideal location for a new middle school would be behind the central office on Celtic Drive. There, the school would have access to the Madison City stadium.

As far as zoning goes, Parker said about half of the students at this school would go on to attend Bob Jones while the other half would attend James Clemens. “I think we can zone it without being extremely disruptive of this town,” he added. Putting the middle school in Limestone County would likely be more disruptive and would involve moving sizable portions of Discovery and Liberty to the new middle school.

The middle school would also need to reach completion by the first half of 2021 to be open for students that fall.

With the new middle and high schools, MCS would supposedly have 2,365 open seats.

By 2021, Parker said both high schools will be full. To address this high school dilemma, Parker announced the creation of a High School Taskforce, which will likely be formed within the next month or two.

The high school additions, which are accounted for in the proposed property tax increase, would cost about $18 million total and increase each school’s capacity by 500 students.

Building a new high school would double that number of new seats, putting the new school’s capacity at 2,000 students. The issue with a new school, however, is the cost: $120 million.

“This property tax increase is not enough to build a new high school,” Parker said. The 12-mil increase would provide 10 mils for the new elementary and middle schools, one mil for the high school additions and one mil for instruction programs and safety.

Parker said MCS has set up a survey open to all Madison residents to give their feedback on the new schools and any aspects of the proposed plans. The survey can be accessed at tinyurl.com/MCSsurvey2019. “I give you my word: I’m going to listen to you,” Parker said. “Let me know what you think.”

RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND GOALS

In the midst of rapid growth and the challenges that has created, Madison City Schools are continuing to push for distinction not only in the state, but in the nation as well.

Last year brought about several new academic additions and expansions at all levels. Some of these include advanced academic resource teachers in fifth grade, Spanish classes added to fourth grade, gifted service hours increased for third to fifth grade students, and several level-one language classes added for sixth- and seventh-graders, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Latin and German.

Beyond that, students teaching in the classroom has increased, the Seal of Biliteracy has been approved as an option for graduating students, and internships have been added in architecture, computer science and engineering. Some of these engineering internships are in the areas of civil, aerospace, manufacturing, biomedical and health sciences.

Parker said MCS currently offers advanced math options from grades five to 12, though they hope to expand that down to third and fourth grade next year. It is also possible that MCS will implement similar expansions in other subjects.

Parker also noted several plans for the future of both elementary and secondary academics. For elementary, MCS plans to add art and music to pre-K and offer both of those subjects all year to all students.

“I’m not an art and music guy, but I’ve watched art and music transform Bob Jones High School,” Parker said. “This was before James Clemens. I watched it transform Bob Jones High School into a different place. … I am a firm believer that the arts is so important to all of our kids.”

Secondary academics will also see several expansions. These include the following: Mandarin Chinese, French, Latin and German level II classes for seventh- and eighth-graders; green architecture; digital game development; Codespace; banking and financial services; advanced manufacturing and machining; AP comparative government; AP studio art: 2-D and 3-D design; blended AP literature, AP government and AP comparative government; and blended 10th grade English and history.

Another impressive academic opportunity will be for eighth-graders to take finite mathematics as a dual enrollment course with UAH. “Dr. (Terri) Johnson has helped us, and our eighth-graders are going to be able to dual enroll with college credit,” Parker said. “Where else can you do that? Not many places. I’m very proud of that.”

In addition to academic expansions, both middle schools have just received new additions. At Liberty, there are now additional classrooms, a cafeteria expansion and upgrades to the gymnasium. Discovery also received a a cafeteria expansion and gym upgrades, though they also received a new special education wing.

Safety and security continues to be a major area of focus for MCS. This includes everything from school resource officers to additional guidance and mental health counselors. There is a mental health counselor at every school, and Parker said they will “continue to add to that, if needed.” In March, MCS will also be replacing two SROs that have left, and more will be added in August. In addition, MCS recently hired a coordinator of safety and security, David West.

However MCS expands—whether academically or otherwise—more funding will be needed. As a resident of the city of Madison, Parker expressed his full support for the tax increase.

“That’s the only way we’re going to stay (as successful),” Parker said. “We can’t do it if we outgrow what we have. We’ve got nowhere to put them.

“I’m asking you to be resolute. We’ve got to find an additional revenue source if we want to continue to be America’s best schools, so when this tax vote goes in front of us … I’m asking you to vote for our kids.”

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