Pascagoula middle schools will merge next year

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - Pascagoula School Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich has maintained for months now that it's time to consolidate Pascagoula's two middle schools.

"What's the purpose of having children in the same community divided into two schools," he asked.

And after Tuesday's school board meeting, he's getting his wish.  The school board voted unanimously in favor of his recommendation to combine the operations of Colmer and Trent Lott Middle Schools.

Starting in fall of 2009, Pascagoula 7th and 8th graders will go to Colmer Middle School, and Trent Lott Middle School will become a 6th grade academy.

Rodolfich said this consolidation will help increase efficiency and expand resources at the middle school level.  He also said the realignment will make room for the realization of another one of his goals- a Pre-K program.

"By creating this first step, we have three years left on our strategic plan, to get the space available to move the fifth graders up," said Rodolfich.  "And then open up space in elementary schools, which are neighborhood schools, to start a Pre-K program in the Pascagoula School District.  And that's very important that we start reaching children at a much younger age."

"I am a firm believer that all children can learn and that we can thrive as a community," said Rodolfich when addressed the school board, and the crowd that gathered to hear the decision.

For the past few months, the plan has churned up heated controversy among middle school parents.   Many parents are concerned because they believe Trent Lott is a higher achieving school than Colmer.  They are also concerned about the added time and cost of transportation to the schools, which are two miles apart.

Lori Warren spoke at the meeting on behalf of a group called Citizens for Middle School Unity.  She said she believes the new plan gives every child better access to the school district's best resources.  She said she thinks it's important to measure the school district's success by how it benefits every student, not just the ones who easily become high achievers.

"We have to measure what we can do with the least of our children," she said.  "How far we can move ahead. How far we can prepare for tomorrow, for our citizens. And we have over 7,000 of them coming up."

Local attorney Robert Wilkinson addressed the school board on behalf of the opposition.  He said in his presentation he doesn't believe there's much evidence that consolidation will benefit the district.  He said he doesn't believe the school district has pinpointed the shortfall in the middle school system.  He said he wants the district to spend more time identifying the problem before it attempts a solution.

"Will that solve the problem?" he asked. "Will that immediately bump us up or somewhere down the road make the education for our children better, and make us not only even with Mississippi, but I know we all want to be way beyond Mississippi."

Wilkinson was disappointed with the school board's decision to move forward with consolidation.

"The point we tried to make is that there was no study, there was nothing to support that this merger will make education better," Wilkinson said.  "And there still isn't. And we're just hoping that this will work without any background. And we think that if they're making such a major move, then there ought to be background for it."

Another of Wilkinson's complaints wasn't about the consolidation itself, but about the Pre-K program that could follow it a few years down the road.  Wilkinson, with help from state Senator Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula), explained that there's no state funding currently in place for Pre-K programs.  Wilkinson said he believes that if the Pascagoula School District starts a Pre-K program, it could come straight out of Pascagoula taxpayers' pockets, with no help from the state.

A decision on the Pre-K program is still several years down the road.

"The bottom line is, I'm responsible for all the children in this community getting a quality education," said Rodolfich.  "This is a step in that direction, to make sure that no child is falling through the cracks in this community, and that we streamline curriculum to give the best advantage to every child."

Rodolfich had these words for anyone who might be skeptical of the realignment.

"Let me tell you something," he said.  "No one loves your children more than I do. And I can't love them as much as you do.  And I'm not going to let any of them fall through the cracks, wherever they are."

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