Construction in works for local school systems

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Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 8:07 am

BRAC funds inject dollars for facilities

Construction is on the agenda for the “big three” local school districts as the new school year gets under way.

Thanks to the $147 million in Base Realignment and Closure funds received recently by the Huntsville, Madison and Madison County school districts, new and renovated schools will reshape learning opportunities for local school children for years to come.

All told, the three school districts have $297 million in construction on the planning docket, which is a combination of BRAC funds and capital funds invested by the school districts. Of the $147 in BRAC funds, Huntsville received $64.7 million, Madison County received $55.9 million and Madison city received $26.4 million.

The three districts announced their capital improvements plans at a Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce press conference in early July. Some of those improvements are already ongoing while some are in the planning stage.

In Huntsville, BRAC funds will help to modernize about 20 percent of the district’s schools, said its superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski. Construction plans include new Grissom and Johnson high schools by 2016, a new freshman academy at Huntsville High, a new junior high on the Johnson campus to replace Davis Hills and Ed White middle schools, a new Whitesburg P-8 campus and two replacement elementary schools for the consolidated Terry Height/University Place and Lincoln/Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools. In addition, the district is upgrading Milton Frank Stadium with a new concessions building, stands, restrooms and press box.

“We will invest $200 million in school construction over the next three years,” Wardynski said.

In Madison, superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler said BRAC funding will help the district keep facilities in pace with growing enrollment and will include the renovation of Bob Jones High.

“We will have major renovations at Bob Jones that will begin in 2014,” Fowler said. “We are still figuring it out. We are in the middle of our capital planning process, and we are looking at potential renovations.”

Besides recommending Bob Jones renovations to the school board for approval, the district’s capital planning committee will also soon be reviewing the need for an additional elementary school.

And in Madison County, superintendent Dr. David Copeland said the BRAC funds will help alleviate overcrowding at Sparkman High and expand the school to accommodate ninth graders now located in a separate school, which will then be turned into an intermediate school. The county district will also build a new intermediate school just north of Lynn Fanning Elementary, a new academic building at Madison County Elementary and a new wing at the Madison County High campus.

Plans are now under way for the construction of a new high school in the Monrovia area. Four sites are being reviewed for the new school. The school will open in about three years.

The district has already initiated a lighting, telephone, heating and air conditioning, and technology upgrade project that will impact every one of its schools through the next year.

“These upgrades will greatly improve the learning environment,” Copeland said.

But, for all three school districts the focus continues to be the most obvious – providing the best education for their students. Here is a snapshot of the year’s plans for each school district.

Huntsville city schools

This school district’s more than 23,000 students, and 2,000 teachers and support staff are beginning their second year with a digital curriculum. In a step that made both local and national headlines last year, Huntsville city schools introduced students to leading edge technology by providing them with a laptop computer and netbooks instead of textbooks.

“Every student needs to have unlimited access to online learning,” Wardynski said. “This is important as we prepare students for pursuing careers in a digital environment.”

This year, that digital push continues. Last year’s computers have been “refreshed,” and all student content has been added. Each school will issue the computers to their students.

“This year it will be more routine for students and teachers,” Wardynski said. “All we do, including testing and delivering online assessments, will be done with the computer.”

In addition, the district is introducing cyber security curriculum at Grissom and New Century Technology high schools, and expanding robotics curriculum at Blossomwood Elementary, Challenger Middle, and Grissom and Lee high schools.

Huntsville is also the first school district in the state to implement Alabama’s 12 quality core assessments, Wardynski said.

“The core assessments are an ACT product that we implemented last spring,” he said. “Those assessments predict how well our students will do on the ACT and will help us do a better job in helping our students get ready for college. The assessments line up with the Alabama College and Career Readiness Standards.”

The challenges for the new year include synchronizing all new technologies as the district’s 40 schools get deeper online into digital learning, continuing to upgrade all educational initiatives in the schools, and maintaining learning during a time of school renovations and new construction.

But Wardynski has no doubt his teachers and staff are ready for the new challenges a new school year brings. All have received additional training through summer workshops, training sessions and curriculum reviews.

“Our goals, and they are big ones, are to continue student achievement in math and reading; increase enrollment in our international baccalaureate program and advanced placement programs; grow the number of students earning qualifying scores on advanced placement tests; and sustaining improvements in our financial situation,” Wardynski said.

The superintendent wants to ensure that the district’s wide-reaching capital improvement project is delivered on time and within budget, and that the district gets out from under a 1972 Department of Justice order by achieving unitary status throughout the district.

“We want to improve the educational process for students and their families,” Wardynski said. “We now have online enrollment that is easier, more efficient and accurate. We are providing families with better information on how their student is doing, and we are making it easier for them to partner with us in education. We have safer schools and a more engaging learning experience for our students.”

Helping students to be independent, lifelong learners prepared for the challenges of the 21st century is the overall vision for the district.

“We are moving toward student-centric learning,” Wardynski said. “We are personalizing instruction to meet the needs of the students at all levels. With their computers, students have 100 times more resources available for learning.

“And we are seeing good progress with an 11 percent increase in enrollment in AP classes, and a 20-point increase in reading proficiency and a 30-point increase in math proficiency. Discipline issues have been reduced by half. We’re having huge growth in the areas where we want it.”

To learn more about Huntsville city schools, visit the website at

Madison city schools

Teaching to standards with an emphasis on technology, textbooks, collaboration within teams and strategic planning within the classroom is the key to success for this district’s more than 9,300 students, and more than 600 teachers and staff.

At the heart of every new initiative implemented is the district’s main focus – instruction.

“We want our students to be motivated to learn. We want them to want to come back each year to find out what’s next. All of our teaching is directed to self teaching and to developing lifelong learners,” superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler said.

To that end, the district is implementing the state’s college and career readiness standards in math and English language arts literacy, said Judy Warmath, who oversees the district’s instruction department.

“We’re going deeper. We’re challenging our students more. We are starting an early partnership process with our parents so they better understand how they can help their child,” she said.

Because Madison has a global society, the district is working to establish an elementary foreign language program during the new school year.

“We hope to roll this out later this year in Pre-K, kindergarten and first grade because these are the most prime for foreign language. We will begin with Spanish. But I want to emphasize this is in its infancy and we are developing it methodically,” Warmath said.

The district is also taking advantage of its extended day program for afterschool children and turning it into an expanded day educational program emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math curriculums. The district is also establishing math competitions at the elementary level to better prepare students for the math instruction and math competitions of middle school and high school.

Computers are taking on a more significant role in Madison city schools with the new school year.

“We are using computers for authentic technology, meaning we want to integrate computers to support and augment instruction. Students are already encouraged to bring their own computer to the classroom. Computers will be more integrated in our classrooms to enhance instruction,” Warmath said.

The district is moving to a more blended use of technology and textbooks, and working to make its wireless technology more robust, Fowler said.

The district steers teachers away from using lectures, sit-and-get instruction, and worksheets to teach students. Rather, the emphasis is on “interactive, engaged instruction so students learn to the best of their abilities,” Warmath said. “We want to accelerate reading beyond a textbook.”

Even in the area of special needs education, Madison is working to provide small classrooms and full services to provide those students with an education-rich learning environment.

“We have less money to do more because our numbers continue to grow. But it is an opportunity for us to be creative and work magic,” Dr. Maria Kilgore, director of special education, said.

“We want to keep providing excellent special education programs. We hope our parents will continue to trust us and work with our personnel to make their child’s education appropriate for their abilities.”

Educating the whole child is a priority with the district. So, it’s not surprising that providing such amenities as new soccer fields at Columbia Elementary is on the agenda for the new school year. The district has also added security entrances to its schools.

Students are also encouraged to be involved in charitable programs, such as fund-raising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. And the school district has started a weekend food program with the help of local churches and organizations to assist the 23.8 percent of its students who are at the poverty level.

“We want students to know we care about them beyond the classroom,” Dennis Jones, director of student services, said. “And we want to teach kids they have a responsibility to give back if they have the ability to give.”

In addition, there will be a lot of new faces in Madison classrooms this year. The district has hired 61 new teachers and staff, and still has 15 vacancies.

“In all that we are doing, everything hinges on instruction,” Fowler said. “We use strategic teaching methods and best practices. We are very research grounded in our practices.

“We want our teachers to know how to interest the child, how they learn and how we use technology in the classroom to improve the learning environment. We want our teachers to provide outstanding learning opportunities for our children. Student growth and achievement is our expectation in the classroom.”

To learn more about Madison city schools, visit the website at

Madison County schools

With facilities being updated and renovated, Madison County schools superintendent Dr. David Copeland’s focus is ensuring students have the right learning environment to pursue their career aspirations.

So, the district is expanding its career tech offerings, adding a new law and public safety program at its Career Tech Center and new curriculums in engineering, culinary arts, construction and emergency management training at Hazel Green High. The district also offers medical and engineering academies at its high schools.

“This is major for us,” Copeland said. “In many of these areas, you can take these courses and get certified. Even if you can’t, these curriculums certainly help you go to the next level and, in some areas, to being fully eligible for employment.”

Madison County offers educational opportunities for its 20,000 students at 28 schools and Career Tech Center. Its four high schools – Hazel Green, Sparkman, Madison County and Buckhorn – lead the way in career technology curriculums.

“Our Career Tech Center does a phenomenal job. But we also offer career programs in the schools themselves, which saves on travel time for our students,” Copeland said. “These programs always have waiting lists.”

Building relationships with parents is crucial to the educational achievement of students and, toward that end, Copeland has instigated community engagement meetings throughout the district to meet with both parents and students.

“We’ve had really good attendance. Parents want to know what's going on in their children’s schools and what educational opportunities we have to offer,” said Copeland, who is now in his second year as the district’s superintendent.

Students will see plenty of new leaders and initiatives in their schools this year, with six new principals on board. This year, middle school students will have the opportunity to take pre-advanced placement classes to better prepare for advanced placement classes in high school.

“Our goal is to better prepare our college-bound students for the challenges of a college education,” Copeland said.

While other school officials have spoken out against the state’s Accountability Act, Copeland does see an opportunity in the flexibility in curriculum allowed by the act.

“It allows us to really be creative and to think outside the box in educating our students,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to do things we’ve never done before and to really enhance the educational process.”

Copeland hopes to see more outdoor classrooms at the county’s schools as well as the implementation of learning centers, and partnerships with companies and organizations that can augment the learning doing on inside the classroom.

But more than anything else, Copeland hopes to provide an environment where the district’s teachers and staff know they are appreciated, supported and encouraged to make a difference in the classroom.

“The greatest thing we have is the people who work in this district,” he said. “They are the tools to providing our students with the best education possible. We are one of the most effective school districts in the state in terms of our resources and our capabilities.”

The district’s 2,400 teachers and staff have participated in summer training and the North Alabama Technology Conference.

“The goal is always going to be quality education for each child. We’re in the kid business and we are focused on providing quality education that will help each student be successful in the world wherever their journey leads them,” Copeland said.

“The relationship between the teacher and child determines how effective the classroom environment is. Learning takes place in the classroom. Teachers are the change agents. They can really make a difference in a child’s life. So, too, can bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors and all the rest, but teachers make the biggest difference.”

For each of the district’s students, Copeland hopes they excel because of the education they receive in the classroom.

“I hope those returning to us in a new school year will come in with excitement to see what will be new and different for them,” he said. “For those who are graduating from our district, I hope we set them up for success for the rest of their lives. I hope they leave us as prepared as they can be to walk across that stage and be a success in the real world.

“We want them to be prepared to lead a meaningful life in a global society.”

To learn more about Madison County schools, visit the website at

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