Haywood Schools at a crossroads

Parents shocked over Central Elementary closing

haywoodParents of Central Elementary School students were shocked Tuesday morning when they heard the Haywood County School Board was considering closing down the longstanding Waynesville institution.

Dawn Melrose, the mother of a third-grader at Central, heard the news circulating in the hallway as she walked her daughter to her classroom Tuesday morning. It certainly came as a shock.

“Central has been a wonderful school. We have had wonderful teachers. The teachers are all so caring. You can tell that the teachers support each other and have a community,” Melrose said.

The school was built in 1954. As the oldest elementary school in the county, some of the students there today are following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, with three generations to have walked the same halls and played on the same playground. 

“My two oldest went through Central and my youngest daughter is currently there. I went to Central and my brothers went to Central — it’s like a family tradition to go there because it’s been there forever,” said Central parent Beth Stinnette.

 

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Personal attachment

While it is one of three elementary schools serving kids who live in Waynesville, it is the only school that is technically inside Waynesville’s town limits. And even though the building is old and tattered, parents seem pleased with the work being done inside.

“I have been so impressed by that school to an extent I never expected when you look at it on paper and see it from the outside,” Beth Pratt said. “But when you are in it, the amount of focus my son has received from grade to grade is amazing. The teachers have a relationship with each other, so it is like he was passed down each year.”

Central is one of the smallest elementary schools in the county, and Pratt loves the more intimate setting it affords. However, like Melrose, Pratt finds solace in the fact that Haywood County Schools is among the top ranked in the state academically. Out of more than 120 school districts, Haywood is ranked 15th.

“It’s not like the kids are going to a bad school. They will be going to a great school. We are so lucky in this area. All the schools are great. The kids won’t lose out in general,” Pratt said.

Stinnette has also been impressed with the teachers and the personal attention her children have received at the school, but she just isn’t convinced she will find the same experience at other schools. 

“It’s a really good school with amazing teachers. My son has ADHD and those teachers at Central helped him out a lot and my middle daughter has ADD and a learning disability — again those teachers have been excellent with her,” Stinnette said. “I like the smaller feel of the school because teachers can focus more on the students. Otherwise students fall through the cracks.”

 

Dwindling enrollment

Some may like the small school atmosphere, but it’s Central’s diminishing population that has made the school system think long and hard about its viability. Now retired from the school system, John Sanderson served as the principal at Central Elementary for 17 years. He said enrollment never fell below 290 and may have gotten upward of 350 at times. 

“That’s about ideal for an elementary school because as an administrator, you can know every single kid and call them by name,” Sanderson said. “You know the parents and you develop those positive relationships, which is very important to have an effective educational experience.”

Central has now hit a record low enrollment, and the school board says it can’t afford to continue paying the cost to operate that building for only 235 students. At one time, families in other districts opted to send their children to Central because it was somewhat of a magnet school for the arts.

Central’s status as an A+ School — meaning it integrated arts into the academic curriculum — used to bring in more students, but now only 35 students at Central are “opt-ins” from other districts. 

Don Hendershot said he chose to send his daughters out of district to Central because of the special program. 

“We’re sad to hear about it — our oldest daughter went all the way through elementary at Central and our younger daughter is in her fourth year at Central,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed our time there and the teachers have been great.” 

After operating with the A+ Program for a few years, Sanderson said he started to see test scores slowly but consistently improve at Central. The program brought in additional money from the state for a few years but quickly fizzled — leaving the school system to pick up the tab to keep it going. 

“We were never the top-scoring school, but what we did was we got up above average within four years and maintained that until I retired in 2000,” he said. 

The program has slowly faded out as new principals have come and gone at the school, but parents say certain aspects of the integrated classes have remained. 

“I really don’t know enough to comment on why the closure might be happening, but I have a lot of respect for the school board and administration. I don’t think they’d make a decision like this lightly,” Sanderson said. “But it does make me very sad it could happen — that school has been a part of Waynesville as long as I can remember.”

 

Transitioning 

If the school board does decide to shut down Central, about 200 students will be divided up and sent to Junaluska Elementary or Hazelwood Elementary. The 35 students who have opted in to Central from other districts will be automatically sent back to their home districts. 

While her daughter enjoys Central, Melrose believes that Junaluska and Hazelwood are high quality schools as well.

“I feel like all the elementary schools are excellent in the county,” she said. “It is sad Central is closing because she has her friends there, it is familiar and it is her home, but educationally I feel like all the schools are equal.”

Luckily, the adjustment of entering a new school come August will be lessened thanks to living in a small tight-knit community like Waynesville. Thanks to church, sports and chorus, Melrose’s daughter actually has friends at both Hazelwood and Junaluska already, “which would obviously make the transition a lot easier,” she said.

If she gets a choice, Stinnette said she’d want her daughter to go to Junaluska, but she’d rather see Central stay open because of the relationship she’s already built with the teachers and faculty. 

“I like the smaller feel of the school because teachers can focus more on each student,” she said.

The proposed closure won’t affect Blazer’s son, who will be entering middle school next year. Stinnette said she worried about her third-grade daughter re-adjusting to a new bus route and new students.

“I think it will be hard on her to change schools because she has friends at Central and they’ll end up going to other schools after they’ve been together since kindergarten,” she said. “That family bond is going to get broken up.”

Audra Blazer said she was disappointed that the school could be closing down. Her two oldest sons attended Meadowbrook for a majority of their elementary years but her youngest son has attended Central for three years. The switch from Meadowbrook to Central has been a major transition.

“We had such a tightknit community at Meadowbrook and everyone helped each other but it wasn’t like that at Central,” she said. 

While Blazer can understand why Central would be targeted for closure — the school building is in poor condition, the district has a high level of poverty and the enrollment is diminishing. On the other hand, she said it’s unfortunate because the school has been moving in a positive direction since Principal Jeanann Yates — formerly at Meadowbrook — took the helm at Central. Since she came on board, Blazer said she’s put more reward programs in place for students and has worked hard to get parents more involved in school activities. 

“I think she can really change some things and bring a following with her as well,” she said. “I’m sad they’re not giving her the opportunity.”

— Becky Johnson contributed to this story

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Last modified on Wednesday, 13/01/2016

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