By Emily Williams
Across the Over the Mountain area, public school systems have been taking advantage of the summer season to make improvements on their facilities. Whether renovating existing structures or adding new ones, Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills are making room to accommodate their growing student bodies and faculty.
The Homewood City Schools system is inching closer to completing its Strategic Plan 2017, put in place to update portions of the system’s framework to accommodate a growing number of students.
Five of the six points in the plan have been completed: updating instructional formats, allocating school resources to accommodate more students, updating technology, enhancing the wellness of teachers and students, and focusing on more professional development for faculty.
Over the summer, the Board of Education held a strategic planning meeting to assess insights from Hoar Program Management and community forums to gather opinions on accommodating student population growth.
“Over the past five years, we have grown like our school system has never grown before,” Superintendent Dr. Bill Cleveland said during a June 27 community forum at Shades Cahaba Elementary.
He noted that each of the city’s schools are close to full capacity.
Without much empty land available on which to build new schools, the city is, for the most part, trying to work with what it has.
“We are fortunate enough to have, through this city, $55 million dollars to address our facility needs,” Cleveland said. “We want to make sure we are spending that (money) the proper way.”
Shades Cahaba Elementary has been reconfigured to suit its student growth, he said.
At Edgewood Elementary, which Cleveland said is “busting at the seams,” walls have been installed in some of the larger classrooms to create more rooms. School officials hope to use a similar approach at Hall Kent Elementary, where they are expecting a similar trend in growth in the coming years.
Cleveland added that officials predict Homewood High School will surpass 1,300 students by 2022.
“That is not the optimal learning environment,” he said.
The board is to receive results Aug. 1 of a two-month study being conducted on Homewood Middle School.
A wave of growth in the Hoover City Schools system is on the horizon, with a new development that includes 1,600 houses expected to flood schools that serve students in the western parts of the city.
The Board of Education submitted a rezoning plan it had hoped to implement this year, but the plan is pending before the court that monitors the effect of changes on desegregation in the schools.
In April, Superintendent Dr. Kathy Murphy announced that the rezoning plan had been postponed until the 2018-19 school year.
According to school officials, several of the schools that serve western portions of the city have been working at capacity and over capacity, while others have been operating under capacity.
Murphy said in a statement that rezoning schools and getting a court ruling that the schools are in compliance with federal desegregation expectations “can be complicated and challenging, but our vision is clear – if we continue to focus on giving every individual child the educational opportunities they deserve and if we are willing to work tirelessly to that end, the promise of a unitary system will be absolutely fulfilled. And we will get there not because we have to, but because we want to – for our children.”
Deer Valley Elementary has been projected to reach just 1 percent shy of full capacity in the coming year. The school plans to bring in a few portable classrooms temporarily until the rezoning can be implemented.
In other news, students at Simmons Middle School can expect to be greeted in August by a newly renovated entrance. According to the school’s PTO, a surplus of funds brought in by the annual Bucs Bounty Hunt fundraiser has been spent to freshen up the front of the school.
Earlier in the year, the school extended a curb across from the entrance for safety reasons. The remaining money is being spent on landscaping. Phase one involved removing trees between a lower parking lot and the school that were damaged by last fall’s drought. Phase two includes planting new trees and shrubs.
At a meeting July 17, the Mountain Brook Board of Education approved the firm Simonton and Black’s proposal for an assessment of the system’s facilities and the creation of a master plan.
The goal is to create a plan of attack over the next five to 10 years to accommodate future growth.
According to the proposal, the schools will need to expand to accommodate more students and faculty, as well as adding parking and athletic fields. Because many of the facilities are landlocked, one big challenge will be finding the space.
One change in place this year is the addition of an outdoor lunchroom pavilion at Mountain Brook Junior High. The pavilion was fully-funded by the school’s PTO.
“The genesis of this project is the perfect confluence of want and need,” said Principal John Clayton. “When we asked our students for ideas of how we can increase their experience, they expressed a desire to have more outdoor space, especially during lunch.”
The Vestavia Hills School System has been hard at work marking off projects that make up its facilities strategic plan’s sixth strategy, which is expanding schools to accommodate future growth. V
estavia Hills Elementary Cahaba Heights has completed phase one of its renovations and building projects with the grand opening of its newly constructed gymnasium and cafeteria expansion.
According to Principal Alicia Hunsberger, the projects as a whole are efforts to make sure “we’re able to grow with the school.”
Hunsberger said the project felt like a team effort as the faculty and students endured noise and windows covered in tarps before construction of the gym was completed in May.
Next on the list for VHECH is renovation of the old gym, which will be turned into a media center. Construction began in late May and is set to finish next July. A final phase will involve expanding the school’s parking lot and carpool lanes.
Other projects coming to a close and on the horizon include a new kitchen and cafeteria for Vestavia Hills Elementary East, to be completed as early as October; and construction of a kitchen and cafeteria for Vestavia Hills Elementary West, which began this summer.
At Liberty Park Middle School, the new school year will welcome a new principal. Tonya Rozell will start in that job this month.
“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to come to a school system with the reputation of Vestavia Hills,” Rozell said. “Vestavia Hills is steeped in tradition, but it’s also a growing and forward-thinking school system. I can’t wait to combine those qualities to create an environment where teachers can grow professionally and students can reach their fullest potential.”
A native of Birmingham, Rozell has been an educator since 1992 and has taught language arts at schools in the Mountain Brook, Shelby County and Birmingham city systems. Her most recent position was assistant principal at Simmons Middle School in Hoover.
Among her achievements, Rozell was named Birmingham City Schools’ Teacher of the Year in 1995. She holds education degrees from Samford University and the University of Alabama.
“We look forward to welcoming Tonya to our school system and seeing the impact she will make here,” Vestavia Hills City Schools Superintendent Sheila Phillips said. “Tonya is a highly regarded educator with a track record of success. She will be a great leader for our students at Liberty Park Middle School.”
Finally, the school system announced new programming at its Vision School. The school has been an alternative school for students who have violated the code of conduct.
In the 2017-18 year, it will offer short-term programs for secondary students who are at-risk or suffering from a variety of social or emotional issues.
“Some students face challenges in their personal lives that become obstacles to their academic success,” VHCS Director of Student Services Kandace VanWanderham said. “We want students to remain in the traditional school environment, but we recognize at times challenges in their lives might prevent them from being successful. This setting provides oneon-one attention to allow students to progress academically while developing the skills necessary for a successful return to their base school.”
The school also will accommodate a virtual school program in which students take courses online while a support staff helps answer their questions.
The school will be overseen by Principal Kacy Pierce.
“We want all students to have the tools necessary to be successful in their school environment,” VanWanderham said. “The Vision School is another layer of support for our kids in Vestavia Hills City Schools to thrive in their academic, social and post-secondary lives.” ❖