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Moving 8th graders to JF and LHS being considered

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By Tom Wilmoth

Bedford County eighth graders in the Forest and Liberty zones could be roaming the halls of Jefferson Forest and Liberty high schools next year. But that’s just one of several options being considered to deal with facility issues in the county.

    During a work session Thursday, the Bedford County School Board discussed the possibility of moving eighth graders to the high schools in those zones as an option to deal with facility issues in those zones. In the Forest zone, Forest Middle School sixth graders hold class in mobile units at the school while in the Liberty zone sixth graders are left at their respective elementary schools because Bedford Middle School doesn’t have room for sixth through eighth grades.
    While no decisions were made, the board wants school staff to provide more information on the issue of reconfiguring the high schools.
    Out of the three zones, Forest is expected to face only a modest decline in students over the next several years while the Liberty and Staunton River zones are predicted to have significant declines            in   their    respective   student populations.
    School board members discussed a number of options for each zone, looking at both short-term and long-term solutions. Among the issues that the board is considering—heading into the budget season— are the aging of the district’s facilities, changing technology-based instruction, overall declining enrollment and the issue of maintaining community schools.
    “I think we know we have a lot of aging facilities that will need work in the long-term,” stated School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch during Thursday’s meeting, adding that the issue of declining enrollment will factor into any decisions that are made.
    Another issue: the reversion of the city of Bedford to town status. “Reversion is going to happen and we’ll eventually have to have a solution,” Dr. Schuch stated.
    Both the Liberty and Staunton River zones are expected to lose 250 students or more each over the next five years, while the Forest zone could lose about 70. One major issue that will be looked at as decisions are made is the number of students who attend schools outside of their respective zones.
    In the Forest zone, Forest Elementary, New London Academy and Thomas Jefferson Elementary all have a significant number of students who attend their schools from other schools in the county. Forest Middle and Jefferson Forest High School also have a number of students transferring in.
    Board member Gary Hostutler said adding the eighth grade to JFHS would be pushing the limit at that school. “It’s not a slam dunk,” Hostutler said of the option.
    “It has worked in the county before,” Board chairwoman Debbie Hoback said of having eighth graders at the high schools.
    Long-term options included expanding the facility at FMS.
    In the Liberty zone Thaxton Elementary has a significant number of students added to its student population (a net of 24) from other schools while Big Island Elementary has 24 fewer students at the school than should be attending. Facility options being considered for the zone include reconfiguring the high school to include eighth graders, have sixth and seventh graders at the middle school and consolidate the elementary schools into four K-5 schools. That option would mean taking the K-2 students at Bedford Primary and moving them to Bedford Elementary.
    Closing a school is expected to save at least $300,000 annually in utility and administrative costs.
    Longer term options for the zone could include building a new middle or high school. City board member Mickey VanDerwerker suggested building a facility that allows the middle and high school to be at the same site.
    In the Staunton River zone, Goodview Elementary (with a net of 39 students added) has the biggest gain in student population from students transferring in from other schools. The number that received the most attention from board members was from Body Camp Elementary. That school has a net loss of 80 students to its student population from students attending other schools in the county rather than there, the school zone they live in. Body Camp was one of two schools the board had considered closing this past year and has one of the smallest student populations in the county. Board members noted that adding back those students could increase the school’s viability.
    Board member Dave Vaden said the transfer policy within school zones needs to be looked at by the board. Overall, almost 10 percent of the school system’s 10,500 students attend a county school other than the one they are assigned through school zones. “Where are they at and why aren’t they at the school they should be at,” Vaden said of the student transfer issues at Body Camp.
    “Sooner or later you have to draw the line and set the boundaries,” he added of the policy.
    Hoback stressed that community schools are important, stating that they can be “as important to a community as a church is.” She said discussion of closing schools was looked at last year and doesn’t need to be revisited in the upcoming budget discussions.