Magnet school a possibility

Published 12:01 am Monday, December 19, 2011

Ridgecrest School students exit their classroom to get on the bus to leave for the Christmas holiday vacation. If the school board and the U.S. Justice Department approves a Concordia Parish magnet school, Ridgecrest School will serve as the site for the magnet school. (Rod Guajardo \ The Natchez Democrat)

VIDALIA — Pending approval at the Concordia Parish School Board meeting on Jan. 12, the possibility of a magnet school in the parish will be in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department.

A magnet school offers specialized courses and does not rely on school district lines, but rather can draw students from the entire parish.

The school, which does not yet have an official name, will be a math, science and technology magnet school for grades kindergarten to fifth grade and would be placed in the current Ridgecrest School site, Superintendent Loretta Blankenstein said.

Blankenstein said the idea for the magnet school began five years ago, but was put on the back burner as other projects appeared.

When a magnet school committee was created in August, Blankenstein said the project gained the momentum to allow them to begin actual planning for the school’s creation.

“We believe this will just be the beginning for Concordia Parish,” Blankenstein said. “There’s no reason these kids can’t have the same opportunities as kids in other parishes.”

Initially, the school’s students will be chosen from the entire parish by a lottery system.

Paul Nelson, director of academic programs, said the goal is to have 20 students per grade and have it be a 50/50 racial makeup.

While there will be no entrance requirements for the first wave of students, Nelson said a 2.5 GPA would likely be required for students to remain at the school.

Nelson said the lottery system for the first students offers everyone an equal opportunity to be accepted.

“This way everyone has a chance to come to the school,” Nelson said. “A lot of kids are interested in science and technology so we’re hoping this school will offer some increased opportunities in those areas.”

A clean discipline record will also be required for students to remain at the school — three strikes and a student would be put out of the school.

Other things such as attendance records and parent participation will also factor into students being allowed to stay in the school, Nelson said.

A sibling rule, allowing a brother or sister of a student who was chosen in the lottery the choice to attend the school, would also be put in place.

Nelson said a school with emphasis on technology can’t work with just traditional teaching methods, which is why administrators hope to bring a digital format style of learning to the entire school.

Smart boards and iPads in a majority of the classrooms would change the way the students learn and retain information, Nelson said.

“We have a lot of ideas that the committee has that we hope to put in place,” Nelson said.

Ridgecrest School students get on the bus to leave for the Christmas holiday vacation. (Rod Guajardo \ The Natchez Democrat)

Since the school includes children from across the parish, Nelson said getting students to the school was also a key factor.

“We’re going to provide transportation for everyone in the parish,” Nelson said. “We cover a wide space, and it will be a bit of an added expense, but it will be worth it.”

Ridgecrest School — which sits in the middle of the parish — was a good option for transportation needs, administrators said.

“It seemed like it would be the perfect spot,” Blankenstein said.

Enrollment at Ridgecrest has been declining, further encouraging the magnet team to consider using the building.

“We already have an infrastructure out there, so it’s not as though were starting from scratch,” Nelson said. “We’re really lucky from that.”

Blankenstein said the students currently enrolled at Ridgecrest are encouraged to fill out an application to be selected, but if they are not drawn in the lottery they will be sent to Vidalia, Ferriday or Monterey.

While the school will begin as kindergarten through fifth grade, Nelson said it will expand as the children move up grades.

“As those fifth graders move up, the school would move up,” Nelson said. “When we get to the high school level we would make some decisions about either expanding or finding another facility.”

With all the pieces in place for the school board vote, Blankenstein said the administration has high hopes the justice department will also approve the school.

“Our biggest concern is how long it will take,” Blankenstein said. “That to me is the biggest mystery right now.”

Nelson said if and when they get the green light from the justice department they will shift into high gear to get the school running by August.

“Once we make the commitment and everything gets approved, were going to do it and we won’t do anything half way,” Nelson said. “If we tell the public we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it.”