Officials talk middle school plans

Published 12:42 am Monday, May 8, 2017

NATCHEZ — Natchez High School will see a complete redesign should voters approve the Natchez-Adams School District’s $35 million bond measure.

If the referendum receives a 60-percent yes vote on May 23, the district’s administration proposes spending approximately $17 million renovating Natchez High School and turning it into the district’s lone middle school, for grades 5 to 8.

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Most of the existing classroom spaces will be torn down to create four new learning houses — each containing a single grade. Walled concourses will connect the new structures to old structures. Security fencing will be placed where needed to secure the perimeter.

The old structures that are not being torn down, including the library, auditorium, cafeteria and gymnasium, will receive renovations as well.

The renovated facility would serve 1,200 to 1,500 students, and the plans call for 48 classrooms in the learning houses, with nine other classrooms remaining from the old high school, including special education. With 1,500 students, each classroom would contain approximately 26 students.

Natchez-Adams School District Deputy Superintendent Zandra McDonald said a number of districts house students from kindergarten to eighth grade, and adding fifth graders to the middle school environment is not unusual.

“Independent learning houses would ensure that each grade level had a dedicated learning space of their own,” she said. “This increases the level of supervision and academic support available to students.”

In the current district’s configuration, fifth graders are at the elementary level, but school officials have said some of the more successful districts in the state cap elementary school at fourth grade.

McDonald said interaction between the grades would be limited.

“The cafeteria would be able to accommodate an entire grade at one time so that interaction in that area would be limited,” she said. “However, interactions among the grades would be strategically scheduled as ways to support multi-grade scientific investigation and collaborations.”

The 21st century learning house concept would be good for the district, McDonald said.

“We want to continue to foster smaller learning areas for our students,” she said. “Teachers in each learning house would have the opportunity to foster closer relationships with and among students. Learning houses support cross-curriculum integration for project-based learning.”

McDonald said learning houses also help foster development for age-level needs.

“We understand that each grade level has specific needs in order to support academic, behavior and social-emotional growth,” she said. “Learning houses will help facilitate that support.”

McDonald said the campuas would be more secure and upgrades to the communication system would also make alerting the campus to any issues easier.

“The only way that visitors would be able to gain access would be someone inside the school would have to grant access,” McDonald said. “So, in the case of an intruder, we would be able to lock down every area of the school immediately.”

The campus would replace the school in Morgantown, which was built in 1959 and contains two academies, and Robert Lewis Magnet School, which was built in 1961.

McDonald said Morgantown has not had any significant renovations while Robert Lewis received some in the late 1990s and early 2000s to build a library and also to put metal beams in the lower level to attempt to support the shifting foundation of the school.

The shifting foundation at Robert Lewis is still a big concern, McDonald said. Several rooms — approximately seven — are unusable because of foundation concerns.

The infrastructure of both the campuses also does not adequately allow integrating technology, which would be a big goal in the renovation of Natchez High School, McDonald said. While the buildings have been retrofitted, officials have argued the efficiencies in a building designed for technology would be good for the students. 

“Additionally, on this campus  (Robert Lewis), as with multiple campuses across the district, the technology infrastructure does not support multiple students accessing the Internet at one time,” McDonald said. “Doing so results in dropped connections and an inability to access the Internet or wireless access ports, which are both concerns when students are involved in state testing that determines school accountability ratings.”

Students and teachers at the Morgantown academies have not had access to wireless Internet the entire school year. Fixing the issue, which the district plans to do this summer, is estimated to cost approximately $100,000.

McDonald said the district has not finalized names for the campuses, including the middle school. She said the community would be asked for input in naming the structures.

In addition to potentially decreasing the transportation costs to the district, having one middle school would be good for the district, McDonald said. Having multiple schools in the district serving the same grade level of students has led to a disconnect in the curriculum.

“This year, we have worked to bridge the continuum through tri-school or common professional developments in the district, and we have seen great improvements district-wide,” she said. “With all middle school teachers in one location, teachers will be able to continue those curriculum discussions and common review student work to improve instructional practices.”