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Fulton County School Board splits on K-8 school model

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ATLANTA — The Fulton County School Board’s rejection of a plan to form a kindergarten through 8th school in the southern part of the county revealed a deep divide among the seven members.

The split vote also signaled that the new approach to education will likely find more support in the North Fulton region.

During a Sept. 30 meeting, a recommendation by Superintendent Mike Looney to fold Conley Hills Elementary into neighboring Paul D. West Middle School failed on a 5-2 vote. The outcome was not unexpected by Looney.

“The easy route for me would be to recommend what's popular and what people want,” Looney said. “But the professional, ethical portion of me says I have to recommend what…the research says is the most beneficial for students academically, culturally and safely.”

The blended school would have been the district’s first K-8 model, but the idea failed to gain support in the school community.

“The Conley Hills community has waited a very long time to get a new building,” said South Fulton board member Kimberly Dove. “They were promised a K-5 and we should deliver that to them.”

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The board approved spending nearly $7 million on a nearby parcel to re-build the aging elementary school. That sum is in addition to the $44 million already allocated to construct the new school. Conley Hills currently has an enrollment under 400 students in grades K-5.

Prior to the board vote, Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones presented data which shows K-8 schools result in fewer disciplinary infractions, less bullying, higher attendance, and fewer suspensions and expulsions than traditional middle schools. It is a common model in private schools and in a growing number of urban communities.

“[K-8 schools] eliminate disruption in school transitions, students and parents feel more connected, and [this] leads to higher academic performance,” Jones said, citing research conducted in the past decade.

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The board vote on the K-8 model also split board members who represent North Fulton cities.

While Katha Stuart (Roswell) and board president Julia Bernath (Roswell/Sandy Springs) voted with the majority, Katie Reeves (Alpharetta, Milton) and Linda McCain (Johns Creek) dissented.

Reeves supported Looney’s recommendation and the research that supports K-8 academies in some communities.

“[The K8 model] is special and will be built in Fulton, and it will be successful,” Reeves said. “And doing something difficult [in my district] is not something that’s foreign to me.”

She noted 15 years ago she supported the decision to close Milton High School after 80 years in downtown Alpharetta and rebuild it in the City of Milton. Then like now, Reeves said, her decisions were not based on politics.

“It was not a popular thing to do,” she added. “But I believed my fellow board members did not do it to harm to my community, or to damage me politically, but because it was the right thing to do.”

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McCain also threw her support behind Looney’s recommendation. She pushed back against what she believed had become a political argument, and not an educational one.

“We are going against a recommendation which in my opinion is best for kids,” McCain said. “We are doing this because there are adults who want something different.”

Stuart noted she is in favor of the K-8 model and “excited” about it coming to North Fulton, but supports the East Point community and their wishes.

“I'm looking at this community and [their] board members,” Stuart said. “This is what we promised and what is expected in that area.”

While there have been no formal discussions regarding a K-8 academy in North Fulton, there appears to be support, Reeves said.

The area has several middle schools with low enrollment, including Haynes Bridge and Holcomb Bridge, which have been eyed as possible sites for a non-traditional format.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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