Preserving the rich history of two schools under redistricting

Monday night the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education unanimously endorsed the concept of a bold plan for new school districts. Some of the stickier details are still to be worked out, bonds for a new school and renovations at others approved and there is some consternation over aspects of the new alignment by board members. Still, in the main, Superintendent Bill Harrison’s proposal for a new way to view the community’s schools cleared its first hurdle with room to spare.

I believe this is a good thing overall, a step that has to be taken toward a future. For more than 30 years I talked to people in every community I’ve lived in and worked and nearly all at one time or another called for changes in how public schools are operated. They demand a new vision and advancements addressing how to produce students who can compete in an evolving world. They seek something to alter or remake the course of an education system they see as failing. This goes on in every community — not just here in Alamance County.

And usually at the moment a significant difference is offered, they collectively say, “nah.” The reasons are predictable. Too expensive. Too radical. It won’t matter anyway. Yadda, yadda yadda. My argument comes down to one thing: If the perception is that something isn’t currently working then it’s not sane to stay the course.

So I applaud what is an important decision by the school system and board. It took courage.

I was telling a board member last week that that there is no tougher issue for an elected education leader than drawing new school districts. Inevitably families will be unhappy. Often students are uprooted from schools, teachers and friends they know. Parents make critical life decisions anchored by what schools their children might attend as a result. And many families have historic ties to a school spanning generations. Years ago, when my spouse was the education reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News, she covered an ongoing series of public hearings about redistricting Onslow County Schools. She titled those stories “Scarred for Life, Part I;” Scared for Life, Part II;” Scarred for Life Part III . . .” At nearly every contentious hearing a voice from the back of the room would wail, “That’s so wroonnggg.”

It’s tough. I get that. In fact one of the divisions in a vote Monday night involved parents in the Union Ridge area. A handful were angered by a line that had their children attending Eastern instead of Western Alamance as they always had. The board voted to allow those families to stay at Western. Board members Patsy Simpson and Pam Thompson objected, and reasonably so. They contend the line was going to impact someone and altering the plan, even a smidgen, isn’t fair to others. It’s a solid argument. The line, indeed, has to be drawn somewhere, someone is going to be angry. The majority believed the exception being made is so small it wouldn’t alter the overall plan and the proposal needed to proceed without further rancor. Also a fair point.

I couldn’t help but think about some other nagging matters in this stew. The new districts won’t just alter where students attend schools in the future. Three of the larger points in the proposal, which may hinge on funding via a bonds and an accompanying referendum, would create a new high school — an estimated cost of $150 million including work at existing schools. As a result, Cummings High School and Graham High School would become something completely different. Graham would turn into a skilled trade academy while Cummings transitions into a school for the arts. Those are both worthy ideas. Both of those sites, which have declining enrollments, would shift into campuses offering a greater range of educational opportunities for students throughout Alamance County who could and should specialize for life after public school. I think there should be more talk about expanding the horizon beyond simply art at Cummings but the board has it in sight. Overall, though, there is a need for a new approach and this is part of the strategic plan for ABSS moving forward.

Beyond the needs of current students and parents, though, it’s a tough loss from a community and historic standpoint. Graham High School has been a hub of the county seat for decades and a part of daily life in Graham. Generations of residents there have attended Graham High, played sports there and hold diplomas after walking across a stage at graduation there.   Graham High has rich history in athletics, including state titles in men’s basketball and women’s basketball. The school’s success has galvanized the town.

Cummings has a significant cultural and social history for Burlington and Alamance County. It is the most recent high school constructed and was put in place by the then Burlington School System. It addressed integration of schools in our community, opening in 1970 with J.A. Freeman, an African –American, holding the job of principal for the first time at an integrated school in Burlington. It was a key moment in city and county history and a visible investment in education in East Burlington. Freeman, who passed away in June of 2015, is a towering figure in this area’s education history. Cummings also produced a National Teacher of the Year (Donna Oliver) and a slew of state championship football, basketball and track teams. It was a point of pride in East Burlington for more than four decades.

That’s a lot of history we should try to preserve when those schools transition to new roles. The stories of the successes and achievements at Graham and Cummings should be on display on those sites so new students can know of life there and those who graduated have a touchstone from their high school days.

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