Columbus Municipal School District is teeming with activity — from dance and aerospace classes and a new middle school to 11-month school calendars.
Anyone watching for the past couple of years might think the changes happened overnight. Longtime district employees and past superintendents know otherwise.
“A lot of work went into attaining unitary status, for many years prior to 2007,” said Dr. Del Phillips, superintendent of education for Columbus schools. Phillips became superintendent in 2007, and soon thereafter, the district attained unitary status being released from a 1970 federal desegregation order.
From there, the district launched plans to breathe new life into the schools and foster excitement into the community about its school system.
“We were able to do a community survey and formulate a plan for programs, which were the magnet schools and also facilities, which was going back to a K-five model and building a new middle school,” said Phillips.
Almost immediately, the district was able to partner with Lowndes County School District to offer Columbus Air Force Base families a choice between city schools and the county”s Caledonia campus.
Soon, high-cost and low-population schools Mitchell and Union elementaries were closed, and five magnet elementary schools — Cook Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School, Fairview Aerospace and Science Magnet School, Franklin Elementary Medical Sciences and Wellness Magnet School, Sale Elementary International Studies Magnet School and Stokes-Beard Elementary Technology and Communication Magnet School — were born. The district also garnered community support for a $22 million bond issue to build a new middle school.
“It”s not to say we couldn”t have done those things if we had not achieved unitary status, but it was more flexible once we achieved unitary status,” Phillips said.
Justice Department oversight
When a district is under a desegregation order, any changes to facilities, student assignment and many other areas have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice prior to moving forward.
This year, the district expanded its elementary schools to welcome fifth-graders and help eliminate a school transition. Once the new middle school opens near the corner of highways 373 and 45 North, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will be taught there, eliminating another transition.
Previously, students went from their elementary school to Hunt Intermediate for fifth and sixth grades, then to Lee Middle School for seventh and eighth grades. Each year, test scores would drop significantly during those transition years. In the coming years, Phillips expects to see positive achievement results in those grades.
Magnet concept grows
Next school year, the magnet school program will make its way into the middle school.
“Those course offerings, like dance and drama, will transition into the middle school now, like all those offerings at the elementary school,” Phillips said, touting the success of the programs at the elementary level.
“Obviously, the magnet approach has been a huge success for us at the district, and all of that credit goes to the teachers and administrators at the building level, because they are the ones who make that happen every day,” he said. “It is having and will continue to have a big impact on our district.”
(Almost) year-round school
Eleven-month calendars at Stokes-Beard and Sale elementary schools also are a success, with students showing marked improvement on practice tests throughout the school year.
“The success calendar, I think, will prove to have a huge impact on the achievement of those kids at the schools with the (11-month calendar),” Phillips said.
And despite swinging changes in the past years, Phillips doesn”t see the progress slowing down.
“Education is a process. It occurs every day over, hopefully, a lifetime. You continue to learn,” he said. “So hopefully, the areas where we are seeing improvement, we will continue to grow.”
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