The McDuffie County School Board is seeking the solution to a problem that has haunted them for years. At the monthly planning meeting last week, Superintendent Mark Petersen proposed to the board the reorganization of grades between Thomson and Maxwell Elementary Schools.
Both schools, located less than one mile apart, currently serve students in pre-K through third grades. The reorganization would have students in pre-K through first grade attend one school, and second and third graders attend the other.
"It makes no sense to duplicate services in a small town like Thomson," said Georgia Hobbs, the school board vice chair and District 1 representative.
Because of zoning lines, Thomson Elementary Principal Beth Newton said the two schools swap students back and forth whenever the students' family moves their residence, even if their move is only a few houses away.
"One week I sent Mychele (Swain, the Maxwell principal) six students, and I think she sent me the same amount. It happens too frequently," Dr. Newton said.
Mrs. Swain agreed that the transfer rate between the two schools is high. She said her concern is that many times, the same student is transferred two or three times during the school year, and this harms their performance. Both principals also stated their counselors spend time verifying residency as complaints are made of students attending the school not in their zone.
"The communication between the two schools is good, but it is still not in the best interest of the child. We need to be policing their education needs rather than their residential address. ... We need to focus on instruction rather than zoning," Mrs. Swain said.
The problem has been addressed in the past. Former Superintendent Ed Grisham proposed changing the zoning lines and allowing out-of-county students to pay tuition to attend school in McDuffie County. At that time, the issue was racial imbalance.
"We should have tackled this five years ago. We shouldn't let it get to the perception of one is a black school and one is a white school," said Nether Ivery, board member representing District 4.
Dr. Petersen claims the reasoning behind the current decision is not racial. The latest report online from the Georgia Department of Education shows that Thomson Elementary has 57 percent black students and 38 percent white students, while Maxwell has 50 percent black students and 47 percent white students. Both schools are Title 1 Distinguished Schools.
"You'll find the racial breakdown is pretty much the same, maybe two to three percentage points difference between the two schools. There is a perception about these schools, and if you look at the test scores, they are very similar. So there's not much difference between the schools, which is going to allow us to put (students) in both schools without much difference," he said.
An online survey on the McDuffie Board of Education website shows 78 percent of those taking the survey are in favor of the reorganization. The survey asks should the two schools' grade organization be changed. The options are "yes," "no," or "worthy of discussion." At the board meeting, Dr. Petersen said 80 people had taken the survey, with 63 answering yes; six answered no, and 11 answered worthy of discussion.
Not only does zoning affect students and schools, Dr. Petersen said it even affects realtors. He said many parents go to a realtor and ask for a house in a certain school zone.
"If in fact, they had to go through all of our schools, then they could pick where they live by what's best for their family rather than what zone they live in," he said.
Dr. Petersen said the change will not take place until the fall of 2007. This will give them time to plan and make the change smoothly, without "shooting from the hip." It has not yet been decided which school will house which grades.
"It's been talked about for as long as I've been here. It's been discussed and discussed, and now it's time to move. We are trying to make some decisions that are best for the boys and girls," he said.