Fixing our schools: Part I

Valerie Newton Special to the Journal

March 21, 2014

ELIZABETHTOWN – The May 6 primary is just around the corner and one of the initiatives on the ballot will be a one-quarter-percent sales and use tax referendum.

The county commissioners voted in May 2013 to approve an additional sales tax referendum for capital needs for the school system. This came as a result of a county-wide school tour in January 2013 that several commissioners and school board members collectively embarked upon. Their findings and discovery of failing building conditions prompted ongoing conversations in which to find a solution.

Buildings and facilities that are as much as 90 years old was the catalyst which prompted the Bladen County Board of Education to request that Sup’t. Robert Taylor commission a master facilities plan. The master facilities plan would help prioritize the greatest needs in the school system and how best to use revenue from the one-quarter-percent sales tax referendum, if approved by the voters.

The superintendent’s 21st Century Facilities Planning Committee is comprised of community members, representatives from community agencies, school personnel, district office personnel, and elected officials.

The group, which began meeting monthly in August 2013, was tasked with developing a plan of action in regards to addressing facility needs both currently and in the near future. Taylor asked the committee to look at census data, school programs, current condition of buildings, economic impact, and financial impact that existing facilities have on Bladen County. He also asked the group to determine what, if any, new facilities and programs should be considered for the school system.

Subcommittee members comprised of the large group committee, collected information regarding transportation, funding, environmental impact, student population, birth rates, construction cost, population location, school location, program offerings and expansions, and technology.

Over the next several weeks until the May 6 election, we will be highlighting schools in the district providing a birds-eye view of conditions. What is consistent across the district is that school buildings are aging and cannot easily accommodate today’s student.

Social and economic conditions demand that we unfold the full potential of every child. Yet, we are doing it in schools that were designed to teach students 100 years ago. When schools first appeared in the early 1640s students were taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. During the 1700s, some civics, history, science, and geography were added, but the curriculum was limited and remained focused for 150 years.

Fast forward to 2000, where public education has increased the number of programs now being taught in schools. Subjects such as No Child Left Behind, Internet safety, bullying prevention, lessons in texting and social media etiquette, elevator and escalator safety , childhood obesity, eating disorder counseling, suicide awareness, organ donor awareness, steroid abuse prevention, media literacy training, expanded early childhood wraparound programs, financial literacy development, intruder lockdown training, health and wellness programs, leadership training, contextual learning and skill development, entrepreneurial skill development, credit recovery programs, online learning requirements, Race to the Top, Common Core standards, and STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics - programs are mandated along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. All of that since 1900 until the 2000s, and we have not added a single minute to the school calendar in six decades.

Following is a closer look at two county schools — Bladenboro Primary and Bladen Lakes Primary — and some of the facility needs that exist at these schools. While we will discuss each school’s condition individually, consistencies across Bladen County show that out-dated infrastructure, non-efficient, failing external structures, and lack of high-performance operations are found in all the schools.

— Bladenboro Primary is a pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade school with approximately 416 students currently enrolled. The original building of the school constructed in 1958, which includes the front building and cafeteria, has approximately 30,000 square feet and was built to accommodate 200 students.

In 1983 the school added the second building, currently the Pre-kindergarten, Kindergarten and computer lab wing, which has approximately 12,750 square feet and can accommodate 100 students.

In 1991 the school added the third building that includes the main office, guidance, media center, computer lab, classrooms, and four mobile classroom units, and has approximately 18,400 square feet. This wing can accommodate 100 students. The mobile units are still in place and being used on a daily basis as classrooms.

The four mobile classroom units do not have indoor plumbing. Anytime a student needs to use the restroom or wash their hands they must leave the mobile unit, go out to the main building doors and use the facilities inside the main building.

Of main concern at the school is that the school does not have a multi-purpose building. During inclement weather and extreme temperature days, and because the school does not have a multi-purpose building, PE is held inside in a classroom. Imagine the energy buzzing inside the classroom from 25 children who would rather be outside running around but instead must stay indoors due to weather. Or, students that would rather be running around inside a gym but instead are squeezed into a classroom that’s been converted to a PE room.

As required by state policy, a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity shall be provided by schools for all K-8 students daily. This requirement can be achieved through a regular physical education class and/or through activities such as recess, dance, classroom energizers, or other curriculum-based physical activity programs. But, hard to achieve without a proper gym or multi-purpose building.

— Bladen Lakes Primary is a pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade school with approximately 300 students. The school was designed and built in 1977, when pod-style schools were popular. This was borne out of the open classroom concept popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The square footage of the school totaled a little more than 29,000 and was built to accommodate approximately 200 students.

In 1996, the school added seven mobile classroom units and a separate pre-kindergarten building to accommodate increased enrollment. These mobile units added an additional 5,000 square feet of classroom space and could accommodate another 50 students. These mobile units are still in place and being used on a daily basis as classrooms. The pre-kindergarten building added an additional 2,600 square feet and could accommodate 25 students.

Because of the non-conventional design of the school, it was built with individual classroom pods instead of one enclosed building of classrooms. Each pod is made up of four classrooms connected by a common area that shares a single stall boy’s and girl’s bathroom. Because of the lack of traditional interior walls, the noise level can travel easily from classroom to classroom.

The mobile units, which do not have indoor plumbing, are located away from the main building and lack a covered walkway for students travelling from classroom to classroom and building to building. A quick fix would be Installing a covered walkway, connecting the main building to the mobile units, would help to reduce students exposure to the outdoor elements. Long-range plans should consider removing the mobile units altogether and adding an additional wing to the main building.

Part two of the series will feature East Arcadia School, a K-8 school, and Tar Heel Middle School, a fifth- through eighth-grade school.