By Lisa Baldwin- Buncombe’s Enka Intermediate School for 5th and 6th graders was not built for the students, but for the self gratification of politicians and bureaucrats.
Throwing reason, common sense and self-control aside, the Buncombe County School Board and County Commissioners unanimously voted to move ahead with constructing the school, using valuable tax dollars that could have been spent on teaching and learning.
Driven by feel-good emotions, these overseers of the public good ignored an important fact: Enrollment in Buncombe County’s traditional public schools has been in rapid decline. The school board proclaimed that the 5th-6th grade school was supposed to solve an overcrowding problem; however, this was a problem that no longer existed. Yes, Enka Middle School was NOT overcrowded. From 2011-2015, the middle school’s enrollment declined by 150 students. The published brick and mortar capacity (not including modular classrooms) of the school is 1,018 students (1,190 according to the state formula.) This past school year there were only 910 middle school students. But this year, the 6th graders from the middle school will be moved to the new intermediate school, so the middle school will only be at 50% capacity with about 600 students.
This fourth intermediate school (5th-6th grades only) in Buncombe County, was dedicated last Thursday and opened on Monday to students. There is only one other school like this is in the state, and for good reason: This education model fails every test for academic excellence.
In a day and age when schools that span six to nine, or even thirteen grades, continue to prove themselves as superior models, Buncombe takes multiple steps backwards. By chopping up education into small segments, research shows students lose up to 6 months of learning every time they transition to a new school.
The four Enka elementary schools will now house Kindergarten – 4th grades, with all feeding into the Enka Intermediate School for 5th-6th grade. Because band and other electives start in 6th grade, great expense is incurred (an extra $2.2 million had to be obtained from the county commission) to hire these vocational, foreign language and music/arts teachers for the 6th graders at the intermediate school. Then just as students adjust to the intermediate, they are wisked off to Enka Middle School for 7th-8th grade (where more elective teachers are needed), and then 9th-12th grades at Enka High.
Buncombe’s other three intermediates have shown that academics suffer. All three have posted failing school performance grades (below a 70.)
Parents are not vested in two-year schools. Getting PTO’s (parent-teacher organizations) started has been difficult. When Koontz Intermediate opened, the school superintendent’s sister had to be recruited to lead the PTO.
Any unbalanced school populations at the elementary level could have easily been solved by adjusting attendance lines at the kindergarten level. So as kindergartners enter school, some may be shifted between Pisgah Elementary, Hominy Valley, Candler and Sand Hill-Venable elementary schools. Many districts re-draw these attendance lines at the elementary level every four years to maximize space and free up tax dollars for teaching and learning. Building more and more expensive schools that have high operating costs is not the answer.
At the Intermediate School’s dedication/ribbon-cutting, there were multiple “pat ourselves on the back” speeches. The school superintendent (whose salary/benefits are costing taxpayers in excess of $230,000 per year) said the $30+ million Enka Intermediate School is “designed to pay homage to the traditions and history that have made this community great.” As a reminder of the old American Enka plant that provided livelihoods for thousands, some of the old bricks from the plant were used in the construction. A “clock tower” and slanted roof lines mimic the industrial complex.
The school is located in the Enka Commerce Park with other factories and the landfill that reminds us of another legacy left behind by American Enka – coal ash and toxic chemical waste. The landfill waste threatens Hominy Creek and presents safety concerns for humans. Chemicals have self-combusted on the property and several exceed maximum safety levels. Thirty tons of coal ash from Enka’s electric power plant was buried there daily. A lawsuit has been filed in an attempt to stop the landfill from being used for youth softball fields. Of course, your gracious commissioners donated $1.3 million taxpayer dollars to the private developers of the athletic fields…
To recap, the new intermediate school (5th-6th graders) will only have 610 students and Enka Middle will be at 50% capacity with only 7th-8th graders. This is one of the worst education models for students. Breaking up their schooling into segments is the antithesis of building a school community with consistency. Ironically, the Franklin School of Innovation (a public charter school across the street from the new intermediate) is housed in modular classrooms, yet parents, who want a more science-oriented curriculum for their children, are applying en masse. No one seems to care if the 6th-12th grade school is bright and shiny new, but as one of the guest speakers at the Enka Intermediate dedication intoned, “People are the heart and soul of the school.” Many parents are fed up with the status quo and common core standards which have dumbed down teaching and learning. School “empire building” is not the correct response to competition from charter schools and opportunity scholarships, instead, adopting models like the expeditionary learning style at Franklin School or a classical education model is the answer.
Until this happens, Buncombe will continue spending valuable teaching dollars on new buildings and their upkeep. Ironically, a new alternative high school in Swannanoa will be built next; it is for public school students county-wide who are struggling academically…