For almost a year, Columbus Municipal School District has worked on its plans for the redevelopment of Hunt School with the understanding it would become the home of the district’s sixth-grade operations.
During Monday’s regular meeting, the CMSD Board of Trustees took its first official step in that transition, approving the move of sixth-grade students, faculty, support staff and equipment to the school for the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
“This is just the first step in a pretty complicated process,” Superintendent Cherie Labat told the board. “I would say today, with this board action, we’re probably at about 3 percent of doing the things that need to be done. There are federal funds associated with the school, so it is an extensive process.”
As district officials began considering options for the campus badly damaged by a Feb. 23, 2019, EF-3 tornado, they first planned to expand the district’s workforce development program. In May 2020, CMSD announced an agreement with East Mississippi Community College to expand those programs. Five months later, CMSD announced a second partnership, this one with Mississippi University for Women, to use part of the school to develop the Hunt Experience Center under a Mississippi Department of Education program.
The program allows education majors at MUW to gain classroom experience with CMSD students, but at the time the district did not designate which students would attend the school.
Labat said Monday that in addition to the tornado, another crisis helped shape the district’s plans for Hunt.
“The cost of the move is going to be between $500,000 and $600,000,” said Labat, who said disaster funds from both the CARES Act and American Recovery Act — federal programs aimed at pandemic recovery — will greatly mitigate costs.
Prior to the tornado, CMSD was using the Hunt campus for its alternative school and various after-school programs. It served as the city’s Black high school during segregation.
Under the new configuration, there will be two wings at Hunt. The north wing will house the EMCC-led workforce development facilities while the south wing will be the home of the new sixth grade. Aside from a cafeteria, each will be self-contained. The sixth grade will have its own classrooms, entrances, restrooms, library and other facilities.
“Based on estimates, we expect to have about 225 students at the school, along with faculty and support staff,” Labat said.
Board member Jason Spears asked how moving the sixth grade classes will affect the middle school, which currently houses grades 6-8.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing all around,” Labat said. “There will still be a lot of kids in those buildings (at CMS). There are about 900 people there now. That’s a lot.”
Board member Josie Shumake asked Labat if there were plans in place to discuss the transition with parents.
“I don’t like to jump the gun,” Labat said. “We’ll definitely be reaching out to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. But at this point, we are still in the planning stage and there are many, many questions that we don’t have all the answers to at this point. When we do begin to have those conversations, we want to have the answers to those questions. Like I said, we are still very much in the early stages of the plan.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]