LUMBERTON — Fewer teachers at fewer schools will greet fewer students than a year ago as classes begin on Monday at the Public Schools of Robeson County, and a rapidly put together consolidation plan takes effect.
“It’s been a difficult process,” said John Campbell, the chairman of the Board of Education for the Public Schools, about consolidation. “It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made as a board member in my two decades of experience.”
According to Superintendent Shanita Wooten, 20,726 students are expected to return to 36 schools on Monday, a significant drop from the 23,000 students who attended 40 schools last year. There will be 256 school buses hitting the road early Monday.
There was no exact number on teachers, but school officials have been saying that they were trying to shed the system of 190 certified positions through attrition. Still, according to Wooten, there are 32 new teachers employed.
The school board voted in July to close four schools, including R.B. Dean Elementary School in Maxton, Green Grove Elementary in Fairmont, Rowland Middle School, and Janie C. Hargrave Elementary in Lumberton, as a way to deal with a $2 million deficit.
Students at Rowland and Fairgrove Middle schools are moving to the South Robeson campus, Green Grove students are going to the Fairgrove campus to join its fourth-graders, Hargrave students move to W.H. Knuckles, all Lumberton fourth-graders move to Carroll Middle, and Carroll Middle’s sixth-graders move to Lumberton Junior High School.
More than 430 South Robeson High students have been sent to the following high schools, Fairmont, 204 students, Purnell Swett, 171, and Lumberton, 66.
Campbell believes the hard work done, the best is to come.
“I am optimistic that we will have a better school year than we’ve have for a long, long time,” Campbell said.
A reason for his positive outlook is there will be a certified teacher in every classroom, and the surplus has made it easier to staff hard-to-fill positions in areas such as K-6, mathematics, science, Exceptional Children and to find school psychologists.
“We’re used to having 50 or 60 vacant spots in these positions,” Campbell said.
Those numbers have dropped significantly.
“We have five core vacancies, which will be filled with a substitute teacher on Monday,” Wooten said. “We have a candidate for one of the five positions and are waiting for the screening results to be returned. This candidate should be able to begin teaching on Tuesday.
“We are very optimistic that we will fill the remaining vacancies relatively quickly.”
Campbell said new doors will open for the South Robeson students.
“They will be attending high schools that have opportunities they did not have at South Robeson High School,” he said.
Cale Lowery, a senior, has been transferred to Purnell Swett High. Lowery expects “quite the adjustment,” going from a school with 400 to 500 students to one with 1,600.
“It’s almost like kindergarten all over again,” Lowery said.
The transfer knocked Lowery out of his top 10 academic ranking at South Robeson, which he worries will hurt his pursuit of a scholarship.
He does look forward to newer textbooks and the challenge of Advance Placement courses, which were not offered at South Robeson.
Nadia McNair said that she is both stressed and positive about going to Fairmont High School. The 17-year-old will be joining the cheerleader squad. She likes what she has seen so far.
“Teachers and staff were actually really nice,” McNair said.
McNair said that she is worried about safety, saying Fairmont and South Robeson are longtime rivals.
Sheriff Burnis Wilkins plans to distribute deputies throughout the schools.
“I plan to have over 50 deputies throughout schools on Monday assisting with first-day traffic issues and welcoming students back to school,” he said.
The school district recently held a transition fair at South Robesonl. District leaders, administrators, school staff members, and central office employees were made available at stations for students and parents to visit and receive information about Lumberton High, Purnell Swett High and Fairmont High.
All three high schools also conducted transition academies for students from South Robeson during the last few weeks. Athletic programs and other extracurricular activities were opened to all students at each school as well.
Campbell believes that as soon as the students adjust to the change, they will be able to see the bright side of a challenging situation.
“All of this dust will settle once the children settle,” Campbell said. “It’s for the children’s good.
“Our students win by having access to teachers that are certified. Children have the right to equitable access to education.”
Wooten said a lot has been done in a short time since the school board went back and forth on consolidation, finally deciding on a plan after working closely with state officials.
She is confident that the system is prepared.
“This has been an intense and challenging process for many of us,” Wooten said. “We see this as a huge challenge as schools are faced with increased demands and decreasing dollars available to provide for students. However, it is our hope that quality services can be maintained, and new services created that can meet the ever-changing needs of our communities.
“Quality education cannot rely on what was done in the past but must look to what must be done in the future.”
Danelle Grimsley, left, receives a book bag with school supplies Thursday from Lorraine Murphy, assistant principal at Fairmont High School, during the school’s open house on Thursday.
Carolyn Green, left, Alexandria Thompson and Christopher Thompson, right, check out books available at the free book booth in the lobby of the Fairmont High School gym Thursday.