The plan for building a new school on property across from Thomson High School is beginning to come more into focus.
Originally planned as a middle school, the school will instead be aimed at eighth and ninth graders, said Superintendent of Schools Mark Petersen. Officials hope the school will open for ninth graders in December 2007 and for eighth graders the following fall.
"Time has changed and our needs have changed," Dr. Petersen said.
He said the change is based on trying to lower dropout rates, and targeting eighth and ninth graders is one solution.
"If we can get them past ninth grade, I think they'll graduate," he said.
Steve Rhodes - who currently serves as principal of Norris Elementary School and has already been tapped as principal of the junior high school - agrees.
"We need ...to offer them a greater level of support," he said. "We traditionally - not only in McDuffie County, but across the nation - see ninth graders facing additional problems. They have more responsibility, but with that responsibility comes increased independence."
Officials hope to break ground on the $13.5 million facility in May, with construction completed within about 18 months on acreage across Whiteoak Road from Thomson High School. Officials are still awaiting state approval on the plans for the school.
Initially, Dr. Petersen planned to build the school in two phases. The first - at a projected cost of about $10 million - would include a gymnasium, elective classrooms and a ninth grade wing. The second phase - which could be funded with future sales tax dollars - would be the eighth grade wing.
But concerns about increasing construction costs could change that, Dr. Petersen said. In the long run, building the entire building at once could save thousands of dollars.
"It didn't take me five minutes to think about that," he said. "That's a no-brainer. ...It makes a ton of sense to finish it up on the front end."
When opened, the school should serve between 750-800 students, Dr. Petersen said. And by pulling freshmen out of the current high school building, the school system should be able to avoid overcrowding issues for eighth through 12th graders for about a decade, he said.
School leaders have already met with Georgia Department of Transportation representatives to discuss traffic concerns. But Dr. Petersen and Mr. Rhodes said shifting school schedules, the eventual addition of more lanes on Whiteoak Road and the construction of a new by-pass in the area should alleviate most problems. Just this year, Mr. Rhodes has seen congestion around Norris soften after the high school shifted its starting times.
"We've had a better situation out here," he said.