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Speakers say leave St. Paul School's grades alone

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As grades are shuffled at other Carroll County schools, parents in Cana don't want their school structure changed.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

CANA — Family members not only don’t want to lose any more grades from St. Paul, several speakers at a Tuesday public hearing asked for classes and programs to be restored to the Cana school.
As Carroll School Board Chairman Brian Spencer recapped at the beginning of the meeting in the St. Paul gym, the effort is well underway to close Woodlawn School, move the sixth and seventh grades to the intermediate school and the ninth grade to the high school.
At the same time, education officials wondered how citizens wanted St. Paul to fit into the mix for the middle grades as the planned changes occur at other schools.

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“We are here to listen and only listen to the comments and concerns of parents, grandparents, citizens and students,” Spencer assured the audience, where people of all ages filled most of the 150 seats set up in the gym.
There are no preconceived notions on the part of the school board on this topic, he said.
Most of the nine speakers came down on the side of leaving both the sixth and seventh grades at St. Paul, noting the school formerly served students through the ninth grade.
Barry Towe, director of institutional research at Surry Community College in North Carolina and lifelong Cana resident, told the school board that taking grades away from St. Paul wouldn’t be good for the community’s economic development.
“I’m used to crunching numbers — if I had a little more time I would have brought you a book tonight,” he said. “It’s not a good selling point to prospective industry when their children will have to be bused an hour or an hour and a half to school.”
Like other speakers, Towe noted that St. Paul once had honors classes, foreign languages and clubs. He asked for those to be reinstated.
He attributed his higher education and earning a masters degree to the classes he had when he attended St. Paul.
The population of Cana has increased by 2 percent since 2010, Towe noted. It would be unusual to decrease access to education in the community as it grows.
It would be better to leave the current grade structure in place, he felt. “The school provides an identity to the community and every grade that’s taken away a little bit of that is lost.”

Speaker Phillip Berrier, a former school board member, said it gives him an “eerie feeling” when Cana becomes the center of attention.
Knowing the pulse of the community, Berrier said the majority of people don’t want the two grades moved to Carroll Intermediate School in Hillsville.
“Personally, I think we already have too many schools in Hillsville,” he said.
The mountain roads that students would have to travel are too dangerous with fog, wind, rain and heavy traffic that bears down on them and the distances are too far, Berrier told the school board. That’s especially true for those living “on the flanks” of the community at Lambsburg and Wards Gap, who are much closer to North Carolina schools.
It would be difficult for parents to meet with their children’s teachers and difficult for the students to participate in after-school activities, he believes.
“A third reason and one of the main reasons is St. Paul is the best school in Carroll County,” Berrier said to much applause. “It’s a great school with great teachers, great administrators, low pupil-teacher ratio, good test scores.... I mean, you can’t beat St. Paul.”
Why would people want to move away from that great teaching and learning environment? he asked. At the same time, St. Paul should have the same quality educational offerings as other county schools.
“We don’t want a second-rate, watered down curriculum... give us a level playing field and we’ll do just fine. We always have,” he said. “The less time we have to spend in Hillsville, the happier we are.”

Speaker Donnette Leonard found the idea to change St. Paul’s grade structure unacceptable.
She doesn’t want impressionable 10-year-olds to have to ride a bus for three hours each way with older kids, she said.
The children would get the impression that their relationship with their community school wasn’t important. Leonard said it just isn’t the case that students have to go to Hillsville to get a more rounded education.
St. Paul helped produce three students who became valedictorians at CCHS in the last four years and actively participated in high school activities. Leonard added that St. Paul’s Standards of Learning test scores have helped carry the district in the past.
St. Paul used to offer a wide range of sports, shop, home economics, foreign languages and more, and now the educational opportunities have been reduced.
Leonard calculated that moving 88 students from St. Paul to Carroll Intermediate would transfer $825,000 worth of programs out of the Cana school. She asked that the school board invest in St. Paul instead of busing their students away.

Speaker Ronald McCraw pointed out another transportation problem that students have endured in the past, referring to a winter weather incident in 1999.
“A snow storm snuck up on the school board and before school could be called out, buses were stuck at the top of the mountain for three, four hours,” he said.
And after $10 million in construction and renovation to St. Paul, McCraw didn’t understand why the school board would want to take more students out of an already underutilized school.

Joy Leonard, besides her granddaughter loving the school and her teachers, said the Cana community have worked hard to support St. Paul.
She served on the board of supervisors when county officials searched for a way to fund the earlier phases of the countywide school construction program.
“The citizens here we put them in a hard place because of the tax burden they would have to share,” Joy Leonard said. “What we have worked so hard for we’re not willing to give it up.”
She wondered whether St. Paul would continue to have students moved out a grade at a time until an idea to consolidate it with Fancy Gap school comes up.

Speaker Phil McCraw stressed that he did not speak as an elected Carroll supervisor, but as a parent, former PTO president, resident and long-time family businessman of Cana.
“I realize there are pros and cons about this, but I’m here to speak on the cons, and there are many,” McCraw said. “Here is my feedback: why would anyone want to move to Cana knowing that from the sixth or seventh grade on their children are going to be riding the school bus at least two hours a day?”
Why uproot children from their home community, he asked. Why was this idea presented to school staff as part of a bigger plan in the county?
“And if this is a part of a bigger plan, why did the school board waste $10 million renovating St. Paul School?” McCraw said, drawing applause. “Are we going to empty St. Paul one grade at a time?
Cana has already suffered its share of turmoil from the past closing of community schools, he said.
“It appears to me that Cana is the community that doesn’t really matter, the community that keeps losing and losing, but [is] expected to continue to pay it’s fair share of taxes,” he said, again receiving a loud reaction from the audience.
He felt the need to voice the opinion of the vast majority of Cana residents. “In short, leave St. Paul School alone,” he said.

There are more opportunities than ever to use technology to make sure more educational offerings are available to St. Paul students, speaker Patricia Sebens said. It shouldn’t be a question of personnel, but the students having the same options as other sixth- through eighth-graders in Carroll.
It’s not efficient to have students riding buses for three hours like her sons did. Those students get to school in a different frame of mind than those with shorter travel times.
It’s a safety issue, too: “We have snow routes in the school system. Sometimes, I think we need fog routes.”
Sebens noted that the renovations on St. Paul were planned to have a true middle school of grades six through eight there. She asked the school board to bring the eighth grade back and foster the students’ sense of community.
“Let us build our community, let us shine as St. Paul always has,” she said.

April Delacruz stated she only had enough information on the grade structure idea to partially support it, but added that she’s concerned about her children’s educational success after leaving public school.
She wanted to see the students get every educational advantage they could.
“College is very competitive,” she said. “Not having early access to honors classes and foreign language may be one factor that can keep my kid... [from] not being accepted to the college of choice.”
Delacruz also wondered if there would be overcrowding when the classes are combined at the intermediate school and has concerns about the bus ride with older children.

After the public comment period, Spencer assured the audience again the school board has not made a decision on this matter, pointing out that four of the five elected officials just took office this year.
Spencer added he felt pleased with the turnout and the input that citizens shared.
“This is about children,” he said. “As long as we all keep that in our sight I think we’ll win.
“This is about our kids — it’s not something that should ever be politicized.”