Community leaders push proposed 2016 school bond and urban investment

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community school bond credit Jordan Green
Ike Howard, Chenita Barber, David Singletary and Beverly Emory

by Jordan Green

A coalition of Winston-Salem community leaders makes proactive recommendations to shore up urban schools in anticipation of a proposed 2016 school bond.

It took Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Beverly Emory and members of the school board a moment to mentally process the request from a coalition of urban community and educational leaders. They asked the board to open an elementary school on the site of Hanes-Lowrance Middle School, which was closed by the district in February due to environmental concerns.

Closing urban schools “affects economic growth and decreases community integrity and stability as families with children move out of those communities,” said Chenita Barber, a member of the Community School Bond Coalition who represents the North Winston Neighborhood Association. “After the loss of such a major neighborhood school, this can be very devastating.”

Emory had to ask for clarification to determine whether Barber meant opening a new school on the exact location of the shuttered Hanes-Lowrance Middle School.

“We understand that there is no [environmental] issue,” Barber said. “So if that is possible, that is what we’re looking for. That is our preference.”

David Singletary, one of only two school board members who voted against closing Hanes-Lowrance, sounded like someone who had been stung by a bee.

“Is there enough support in the neighborhood — considering that we know from the study we received that the school is clean — is there enough support from the local neighborhood that they would want to see that school re-utilized?” he asked.

“Yes,” Barber replied.

The coalition came together in August when Robert Leak III, president of the Easton Neighborhood Association in southeast Winston-Salem, called Malishai Woodbury, a former candidate for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School, to talk about a proposed school bond referendum for 2016. The two decided it was important to take a proactive stance to make sure the needs of urban schools were met, and quickly reached out to their respective networks. Leak recruited Carolyn Highsmith, president of the Konnoak Hills Community Association on the south side, and Woodbury started working her contacts on the east side. Along with the North Winston Neighborhood Association, the coalition also includes the Winston-Salem NAACP, the New South Community Coalition and the Big 4 Alumni Association.

The coalition presented 10 detailed recommendations for school-building needs to the school board during a community meeting held at Ambassador Cathedral on Oct. 29. The recommendations ranged from consolidating high schools to opening new middle schools, but shoring up the viability of urban schools emerged as a theme of the coalition’s overall agenda.

The administration wholeheartedly endorsed one the recommendations — to close Ashley Elementary and move the school to a new location.

“We’re working on a redevelopment plan that the city is looking at as part of putting a new Ashley into that, that would also include daycare, pre-K, K-5 and a health center,” Assistant Superintendent Darrell Walker said. Considering that the district is in negotiations for the property, Walker said he couldn’t get into specifics, but disclosed that the location “would be visible to” Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

“That’s what we saw in your recommendations that we were like, ‘Yay,’” Emory said. “That’s where our minds are at, and it was nice to be validated by the community and neighborhood.”

Ike Howard, president of the Winston-Salem NAACP, said the coalition views the current location of the school — on a one-way traffic circle off Jackson Avenue “as a really bad location for attracting the kind of growth needed to make such a new school truly successful.”

The coalition recommended that Winston-Salem Prep be merged into Carver High School — both are predominantly black schools on the east side — and then be made into a magnet school. Woodbury, who works for neighboring Guilford County Schools, cited the addition of a magnet program at Dudley High School in Greensboro almost 10 years ago as a model for how Winston-Salem Prep’s college preparatory program could flourish as part of Carver High School.

“Combining Winston-Salem Prep into Carver High School would of course increase the strength of attracting students to a Carver High School magnet school, and it’s critical that urban high schools remain viable and sustainable,” Woodbury said.

Superintendent Emory said she would anticipate resistance from Winston-Salem Prep parents, and asked for advice on selling the plan to them.

Eric Martin, who retired three years ago as the district’s textbook coordinator, said he favors the merger for reasons of efficiency.

“I think we need to fill up some schools,” he said. “And it’s gonna — excuse the expression — it’s gonna piss some people off.”

While the coalition wants to consolidate high schools on the east side, they want the district to build two new middle schools, one on the east side and one in the southeast.

Martin asked district officials if there were any middle schools on the east side, and the only one Chief of Staff Theo Helm could name was Winston-Salem Prep, which serves students in grades 6 to 12.

Martin said the coalition supports building new middle schools so that urban students on the east side won’t have to be bused to Kernersville.

“When the school system claims that they have neighborhood schools, they can’t make that claim,” Martin said. “For certain kids, they have neighborhood schools, but for other kids they don’t have neighborhood schools.”

Emory said district officials plan to finalize a bond proposal by the end of the year, and then hold a series of public input meetings. Getting the bond proposal on the 2016 election ballot would require approval by the Forsyth County Commission, which is expected to consider the request in May.

The meeting concluded with a formal question from coalition members about what they could do to support and promote a final school bond proposal.

“If we make some tough decisions, you can help us with how we communicate that,” Emory replied. “How’s the best way to do that? Because that is part of the dilemma; it’s not making people feel like we’re taking away something that’s really important to them. How do we do that in a way that makes them feel like what’s coming is a better opportunity for their child?”