Parents Rally for Academy Heights
With one of the county’s top-performing schools on the chopping block for budget cuts, parents are organizing to stop that from happening.
Parents at Academy Heights Elementary School are trying to present a united front against Superintendent Susan Purser’s budget proposal that includes a measure to consolidate the county’s year-round school program and close the K-5 elementary school at the end of the year.
Purser submitted the item to the Moore County Board of Education Monday as a part of $8.2 million in budget cuts, saying that the school’s 70-year-old building needs to be closed, saving the system $500,000 a year.
Students at Academy Heights would have the option to continue the year-round program at Southern Pines Primary and Southern Pines Elementary, or they could choose to attend schools located in the attendance areas near where they live.
Since learning of the proposal, parents have been calling local and state representatives, signing petitions, handing out fliers and creating a Facebook page called “Save Academy Heights,” which already has more than 400 followers.
Purser was meeting with parents to hear concerns and answer questions at West Pine Elementary School Thursday evening, after The Pilot’s press time.
On Wednesday, parents gathered in the school’s gymnasium for an emergency PTA meeting to prepare for the meeting and to discuss the group’s appeal to the Board of Education.
The school board will hold a public hearing on the entire budget proposal at 6 p.m. Monday at Carthage Elementary School. The second half of the meeting will be dedicated to the Academy Heights issue.
Many parents said they were stunned when they heard the news via a Connect-Ed voice mail from Purser sent Monday evening. Letters were also mailed to students’ homes.
At the PTA meeting, parents wanted to know why they weren’t notified sooner.
“We were flabbergasted,” PTA president Carol Ray said before a crowd of parents.
Parents questioned the timing of the announcement and wondered if there had been any consideration of the school’s upcoming spring break when the meetings were scheduled.
Some said they were left scrambling to change plans to be present at the meeting with Purser, the public hearing and the board’s scheduled vote on the budget April 4.
“The main rub on this has been that no one has been given any notice,” Ray said. “We were given no warning. The way it was handled was terrible. This is a big, big decision.”
Purser said Monday that she and her staff, along with the members of the Board of Education, are willing to address parents’ concerns in efforts to maintain an open dialogue.
Ray stressed that every parent needs to get involved to preserve the great synergy among parents, teachers and students that makes Academy Heights so successful.
“It’s about the recipe we have here,” she said. “There are going to be great teachers wherever we go, but what we have here is special. We have a right to keep that.”
Parents received information packets containing the contact information for the Board of Education, as well as local and state representatives.
Ray emphasized that the members of the Board of Education are not to blame for the proposal.
“But they are the ones that we need to convince to stop it,” she added.
Ray advised parents to ask the board for another option or at least more time so that the PTA could have the chance to see if other alternatives are available. She added that parents should leave the two Southern Pines schools out of the debate.
“We’re not knocking Southern Pines or any other school,” she said. “We chose to come here.”
Parents raised concerns ranging from how the closure will affect class sizes at other local schools to whether or not the Southern Pines schools can effectively accommodate students with special needs.
One parent asked how the decision could impact the system over the next five years as more families move to the area.
“We want answers,” Ray said.
At the end of the meeting, parents hoped that Purser would have solid data to address their concerns.
Maggie Bonecutter said she hopes Purser will be able to explain why Academy Heights needs to close, despite the school’s high performance academically.
“It’s all happened in a vacuum with no opportunities to find an alternative,” she said. “I want to see why Academy Heights, why other alternatives weren’t considered.”
She said she believes that with the school’s closure, the school system would lose a proven model for success.
“To now extinguish that model is detrimental to all public schools in the county and the state,” she said.
Bonecutter says it took three years to get her daughter, Lydia, enrolled at Academy Heights, which has long waiting lists. She is a second-grader.
The system has kept school enrollment low ever since Academy Heights opened its year-round program to 250 students in 1996.
“My goal was to have her come here as well,” she said, glancing at Lydia’s 2-year-old sister, Sophia, scampering around on the worn gym floor.
If the school is closed, Bonecutter will have to send her daughter to West Pine Elementary, which she calls an “undesirable” option because of its traditional schedule and its lack of an academic record as a brand new school.
“It’s just not Academy Heights,” she said. “Their success rate is not proven. Ours is.”
She added that she has serious concerns about the school already being close to capacity, despite the fact that it opened in a brand new facility this year.
Bonecutter says a year-round program is more beneficial for her child because it improves the retention of information and gives her daughter a chance to refresh her mind during breaks every five weeks.
“Students are more prepared,” she said. “It’s conducive to a good learning environment.”
Jan McCoy, another parent of a second-grader, is protesting the measure despite the fact that she and her family are relocating to Massachusetts before the next school year. She said there is no comparison to the level of parent involvement at Academy Heights.
The school’s PTA raises more than $30,000 each year to help fund school activities and has made several contributions to the school over the years, including purchasing new playground equipment and installing Smart Boards in classrooms before the school system purchased them for the rest of the county.
“These families have worked hard for this school,” she said. “Where are their efforts going to go?”
Loss to Community
Taylortown residents are also concerned about what would become of the school building that represents so much history for the community.
Resident Carolyn Radcliff spoke at the meeting, emphasizing that the school is an integral part of Taylortown’s identity that cannot be lost.
“When you say ‘Academy Heights,’ it goes deeper than what you will ever realize,” she said. “This building may be old, but it was built on a solid foundation. Academy Heights follows a long story behind people in this community.”
Academy Heights was built in 1934 to serve the area’s black students in first through 12th grades up until desegregation.
“We appreciate you all coming to this community,” Radcliff told parents. “We love Academy Heights. We love you, and we love your children.”
Thursday morning was a typical day as parents dropped their children off at school. Students rushed to greet friends and hurried to class just as they always do.
Green was the day’s festive color as students tried to avoid getting pinched on St. Patrick’s Day, but several students also came to school sporting orange and black — the school’s colors.
Students even wore shirts that read, “Save Academy Heights.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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