Another step toward a middle school
Jackson County Schools recently approved an agreement to undergo a master planning process that will move the school system one step closer to securing a middle school.
“This would develop a master facility plan for all of Jackson County Public Schools,” said Deputy Superintendent of Jackson County Schools Jake Buchanan.
The school approved an agreement with Clark Nexsen architectural firm to create the master plan. The plan will pay particular attention to appropriate use of space for classrooms and labs for all students. The second component of the plan will develop a master plan for athletic facilities, specifically those at Smoky Mountain High School.
The decision to undergo the planning process was the result of conversation between the school board and the Jackson County Commission. Commissioners approved funding for the plan in their 2023-24 budget and will pay for the planning process.
“We’re very appreciative to our county commissioners,” said School Board Chair Elizabeth Cooper.
While the planning process is the next step needed toward the possibility of a middle school in Jackson County, it is not intended to investigate the specifics of creating a new school — whether that be by renovating an existing building or constructing a new one.
“[The middle school] is not their primary focus,” said Superintendent Dana Ayers. “If you could extract the middle school conversation — that’s not going away — out of this master plan conversation, we want to ensure our county commissioners that when we have a middle school and when we go and build a new facility, if that’s what we do, that the facility like this space here, is revamped to have adequate space.”
There has long been talk of creating a traditional middle school in Jackson County, but the conversation is now picking up steam. In a joint meeting with the Jackson County Commission in January, the school board listed a traditional middle school as one of its top budget priorities .
Commissioners told JCPS leadership that if the county was going to build a new building for a middle school, it wanted to know that the existing space at the four K-8 schools — Fairview, Scotts Creek, Collowhee Valley and Smoky Mountain Elementary — is still going to be adequate and that there won’t be excessive space leftover, after extracting grades six through eight. These schools are built using pods, in which groups of classrooms were constructed side by side without permanent walls between them.
“So they’re looking at specifically here in particular how to rework those pods to be true closed-in classroom space with adequate space, and not a piece of a pie in a pod,” said Ayers.
Jackson County Schools is unique among The Smoky Mountain News’ four-county coverage area — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties, along with the Qualla Boundary — in that it does not have a typical middle school that exclusively serves sixth- through eighth-graders. Instead, there are four K-8 schools, serving a total of 724 middle grade students.
Part of what brought this discussion to the forefront once again was the complicated case of middle school sports in a district with K-8 schools . JCPS has both district middle school sports and school-based middle school sports, which has put a strain on both staffing and facilities. Throughout the 2022-23 school year, administration had discussions about ending one sports organization or the other. However, in January of this year, after an outpouring of community input, school board members decided to maintain both district and school-based middle grades sports.
Without a middle school, JCPS administration has said that students lack many opportunities in academics, arts, athletics and career and technical education. There are differing levels of access to all of those offerings at the four K-8 schools.
Some of the schools lack the ability to offer advanced classes for middle grades students because there are not enough students to make up a whole class. For example, while Cullowhee Valley and Fairview schools can offer high school level Math I for eighth-graders, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek School cannot.
“If we had that traditional middle school setting, then more students could be afforded that same opportunity,” said Ayers.