Should academies define school building needs?

Long-range planning group asks if educational program would affect district's plan

More than one member of a residents’ committee — charged with developing a long-range plan to address the Jefferson City Public School district’s space needs — wondered aloud how the seven academies would be addressed in light of their work.

Starting next fall at Simonsen 9th Grade Center, students will be assigned to one of seven smaller learning communities, or academies, in the school. The plan is to familiarize students with a profession in the hopes of making the learning more rigorous and relevant. Ultimately as the freshmen matriculate to the high school, the program will expand to include all students from grades 9-12.

“How are we going to make room for the academies at the high school?” asked Rich Hirst, science teacher. “Are we going to get new plans for the high school?”

Former school board member Jackie Coleman also wanted to know more about how the high school might be “reconfigured” to accommodate the seven new academies. She called it a “big issue” and wondered: “When does the rubber meet the road?”

Kenny Southwick, educational planner for ACI Boland, the firm that is facilitating the meetings for the school district, said: “Academies keep coming up. We understand academies keep coming up.”

He said he wasn’t sure if instituting academies at the high school will mean that educators will need more space to hold classes, or if they will be able to make do in the buildings as they exist today. Currently ninth- to 12th-grade students are spread among three campuses: Simonsen 9th Grade Center, the Jefferson City Academic Center and Jefferson City High School.

“I don’t know if academies limit capacity or not. I don’t know,” Southwick said. “But it’s going to drive what the outcome is going to be.”

“That’s my point,” Hirst rejoined, noting many people in the district see smaller learning communities as desirable.

“Are we going to do all this work, but it has to be changed?” Hirst wondered. “This is going to be obsolete when they put small learning communities in the schools. Are we going to have to start all over again?”

Michael Kautz — principal architect with ACI Boland — suggested it’s possible to come up with a district-wide facilities plan that focuses primarily on the square footage the district needs, without delving into programming issues.

Kautz added whether or not the district fully implements academies isn’t going to “make a big impact” one way or the other. He believes that planning the seven academies is a programming issue that administrators, teachers and principals will deal with regardless of the space they are given.

Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce President Randy Allen also weighed in on the conversation, wondering if academies could be implemented fully until physical changes are made to the building. “Is it ‘Academies Lite’ until then?” he asked.

Bob Weber, building and grounds director who also is co-chairing the Long Range Facilities Planning Committee, explained: “From a physical standpoint, very little has been asked (of his department.) We’ve taken a wall down here and there.”

“I don’t have very much money in my budget,” he added.

The academies concept includes more cooperative teaching among the faculty.

He noted there are already five to six integrated classrooms at Simonsen, such as the room where government and English are taught together. “It’s already started,” he said.

Southwick said it may take some more square footage to make the academies function properly.

“Maybe it’s going to cost more? Who’s going to pay for it?” asked Dan Ortmeyer, a proponent of a movement to build a second high school Jefferson City.

Southwick rejoined the group: “Raise your hand if you feel the status quo is OK?”

At Tuesday’s meeting, a few members of the committee said they believed meeting for only two hours, once a month, wasn’t enough to get the job done. In the end, they agreed to meet for a longer time next month.

Committee member Lonnie Schneider said he’d like to tour more school buildings.

“We need to go and tour the facilities and sit down with the principals and teachers,” he said. “And learn about what kind of programs are going on while the students are there.”

“We’ve got an electorate out there that isn’t going to pass this thing,” said committee member Charles Gaskin. “My assessment is, this is a fractured community. It’s going to take a lot longer to convince a majority of voters to support this.”

Before they left, they were also given some homework to complete. They were asked to: pick an issue they wanted to discuss more in-depth; propose a solution; list the pros and cons; and come to the meeting ready to discuss it collectively.

“Everybody has the opportunity to have their voice be heard,” Southwick said.

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