District needs court OK to open school

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 7, 1999

Every day more than 1,100 students and teachers cram the halls of Morgantown School on Cottage Home Drive.

It’s a never-ending scramble for workers to educate these second- through sixth-graders in a building designed for a much smaller population.

&uot;Eleven hundred children in one place is too much,&uot;&160;said Elizabeth Tanner, a Morgantown fourth-grade teacher. &uot;There is nowhere this entire school can meet all in one place. You should see us trying to get them to lunch.&uot;

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Just getting students back and forth to the cafeteria, physical education classes and the bathroom creates a snarl of congestion, she said.

And it takes hours to get the students through the lunch line.

Last Friday, sixth-graders were still standing in the cafeteria line at 1 p.m., even though the lunch session began at 10:35 a.m.

&uot;We have had times when we have had only 15 minutes to eat,&uot; Tanner said.

McLaurin Elementary on Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, another upper elementary school, also is overcrowded. It has 938 students in a building meant for 600 to 700.

&uot;We are so large sometimes we can not do everything we would like to do,&uot; said McLaurin Principal Pam Sandel. &uot;We meet the needs, but we could do a multitude of things better if our schools were smaller.&uot;

The school district wants to reduce crowding by opening Braden School on Homochitto Street as a fifth elementary school. Braden is currently used as the administration building.

But it is not as easy as just opening another school.

In the late 1980s, a group of Natchez residents petitioned federal court, arguing that Natchez schools were not properly integrated.

So Judge William Barbour ruled Natchez had to close several schools and only operate the schools which are now open. West and Frazier became primary schools, and Morgantown and McLaurin became upper elementary schools.

Without court approval, the district can not make any changes to reduce overcrowding, said Superintendent Dr. Carl Davis.

District officials would like to turn Frazier, West, Braden, Morgantown and McLaurin School into K-6 schools and reduce McLaurin to 700 students and Morgantown to 800 students, Davis said.

District officials think students perform better in smaller schools and have less discipline problems.

&uot;Anytime you have a school the size of Morgantown or McLaurin you can’t meet the total needs of the children,&uot; said Mary Kate Garvin, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education.

In larger schools, administrators spend more time on management than education, Garvin said.

&uot;It’s hard to get that personal relationship with the child, and that’s what they need,&uot; Garvin said.

So more than a year ago, the district asked the judge to revaluate the case. The court has yet to make a ruling.

The solution may hinge on the actions of the suit plaintiffs, Phillip and Carolyn West, George and Deborah Harden and Lonnie and Carolyn Nichols.

If they don’t agree, the court could be slow to act and the district may have to take part in an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit, Davis said.

It has been months since the school board has met with the plaintiffs, but Davis said he may try to contact them soon.

In order for Braden to be reopened as a school, the U.S. Justice Department and all of the plaintiffs must agree to the plan, said school board attorney Bruce Kuehnle.

Paperwork for the consent order has not yet been filed, he said.

Larger schools escalate discipline problems and decrease teacher morale, Davis said.

Morgantown Principal Evelyn Smith agrees changes need to be made.

&uot;It’s not that I’m overcrowded. I’m too large,&uot; Smith said.

Morgantown has enough classrooms but the whole school would benefit if there were fewer students, Smith said.

Because of overcrowding, Morgantown’s stage area was turned into cafeteria space and library and counseling times are short and infrequent.

The children also have lost extracurricular activities, recess and socialization time, said Mary Woods, a third-grade teacher at Morgantown.

&uot;It’s not good for the children,&uot; Woods said. &uot;I don’t think they can be exposed to everything they should be exposed to.&uot;