Carolina Forest Advisory Board to bring principals into the discussion on school overcrowding

vgrooms@thesunnews.comDecember 4, 2013 

— The Carolina Forest Advisory Board is having a special meeting Thursday to consider all ideas for solving overcrowding in the area’s schools and to get input from those closest to the problem – the schools’ principals.

Overcrowding is most severe at Ocean Bay Middle School, and the Horry County school board, small committees and some vocal parents have spent six months tossing around possible solutions, including moving attendance lines. The process has lasted so long that the original enrollment numbers are outdated, and educators – who were first brought into the discussion at the last board meeting – have outlined more than a few challenges with the board’s latest scenario of moving sixth grade back to River Oaks, Carolina Forest and Ocean Bay elementary schools, which feed into Ocean Bay Middle. Opponents of that latest plan say curriculum would have to restructured, money would have to be spent to buy new buses and students’ electives such as band could change.

“We’re doing this backwards,” said Lorraine Mallon with the advisory board. “[Moving sixth grade] is not a smooth idea, and there are other ideas out there. The point is to get our principals together and say, ‘What do you think?’ ”

Each Horry County Schools attendance area has an advisory board, made up of parents who are appointed by the Horry County school board for two-year terms. Advisory boards meet about four times a year.

Carolina Forest is growing faster than projected, and the decision needs to be looked with the most recent data, said Mallon, who has children at the elementary, middle and high schools. The school board learned at its last meeting that the attendance data needs to be updated with this fall’s numbers, and new forecasts for shifting the sixth grade, as well as sending students who live north and west of Gardner Lacy Road and Myrtle Ridge Drive to Palmetto Bays Elementary School and Black Water Middle School, is to be presented to the board Dec. 16.

The board has considered plans that would change attendance lines in different parts of the Carolina Forest attendance area, sending students to Black Water Middle School instead of Ocean Bay. Parents objected to those plans, mainly based on the distance from their homes to Black Water, which is in Conway, and travel time along U.S. 501.

Mallon said considering the correct attendance numbers and the area’s growth, the previous scenarios would be only a bandage for the problem, holding for maybe two years, and that a huge shift to Black Water – one of several schools with extra space - would create overcrowding there. Ocean Bay Middle, which uses portable classrooms, is overcapacity with about 1,204 students, according to the district’s average enrollment by the 45th day of this school year.

River Oaks, with 732 students, grew by more than 100 students from the same time last year, an indication of continued growth in the area that would limit space if officials decide to move sixth grade there.

The school board has a $311 million building plan, but project priorities have been shifting since June when the board discussed building a middle school to alleviate overcrowding in the St. James and Socastee attendance areas. A new intermediate school has been approved since then for St. James, and Mallon said she doesn’t understand how Socastee’s Forestbrook Middle School and Ocean Bay were left out of the plan.

Cindy Ambrose, HCS chief academic officer, told the board at its last meeting that shifting the sixth grade back to the elementary schools can be done but would present some challenges with the curriculum, including the number of electives students could take and the accelerated programs that allow middle-schoolers to take high school courses. There also were questions about whether middle school teacher certification would allow for teaching in an elementary-level setting, and Deputy Superintendent Rick Maxey also said the district would have to purchase more buses to accommodate restructured routes.

Ray Winters’ daughter is in fifth grade at Ocean Bay Elementary, and he said he is concerned about any plan to shift the sixth grade because of lack of space at the elementary schools and of the effect it would have on students.

“Sixth-graders have different needs than students in K-5, especially with electives and extracurricular activities,” he said. “If you’re a non-educator, all this probably makes perfect sense to you, but if you have any background in education, you’re going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

Winters said there is limited space at Ocean Bay Elementary, and while he likes the school, it’s not appropriate for the sixth grade. He said he is concerned that such a plan would negatively impact accelerated courses, taking kids away from an environment where they are excelling, and that there would be too many changes for students and staff to digest in a short amount of time, especially with the district fully implementing the Common Core curriculum next year.

“I want what’s best for the kids, and I don’t think this is the right way to do it,” Winters said. “I just don’t see with the limited space at the elementary schools it not having an effect on the curriculum, and I think you’re going to see some kids really struggle.”

Mallon said she is trying to see the picture from every side, and she doesn’t know what the right answer is, but that there are a lot of smart people on the advisory board who, along with the principals, need to figure out what is best for Carolina Forest.

“I thought I had some crazy ideas, but none of them are crazy anymore,” Mallon said. “I wouldn’t wish [making the final decision] on my worst enemy. I only hope board members will come and hear from our principals. … They may think, ‘We’ve already heard it all,’ but no, I don’t think you have.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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