MSU may be partner in consolidated school district

September 19, 2013 10:14:15 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Oktibbeha County consolidation efforts could yield a long-discussed partnership with Mississippi State University to establish a demonstration school, or at least a more-rigorous partnership, which will help the university engage in rural renewal efforts on an educational level. 


David Shaw, MSU's vice president for research and economic development, told fellow consolidation committee members Wednesday that the university is interested in a partnership which could allow its students to take teaching theorem out of the classroom and into a real-world setting: Oktibbeha County's own schools. 


"We have an opportunity to look nationally and identify the best teaching practices, and then demonstrate them in a live setting," he said. "There's definitely a gap between theory and practice. We can set up classrooms as observation rooms where our students can see (teaching) first hand, understand how things could be done better and have a visual idea of the theory they've been learning about. 


"There are a number of universities that have focused a lot of attention on urban renewal from an educational standpoint. We have the opportunity to ask, 'What does it take to do that from a rural standpoint?'" he added. "We see this as a golden moment to take what we were already discussing and planning and use this to kick start the conversation." 


Shaw's comments came Wednesday while the Commission on Consolidated Starkville School District Structure first broached potential school configurations under a unified district. University leaders have discussed the idea of utilizing a demonstration school or program in the past, he said, but state-mandated consolidation has brought the idea to surface. To implement such a plan, a new facility would not be needed immediately as the two school systems merge in 2015, Shaw said, but the university could put its muscle into fundraising opportunities for future construction. 


"We may very well ask what is available now to then start making plans and goals to have our own facility. If you think about what an Overstreet (School) or an Emerson (Family Center) could do to start things, we could then set a goal to build a facility," he said. "It's one of those situations where we are uniquely positioned to set some goals in that regard." 


Any partnership, he said, would be in conjunction with the district and not create competition like magnet or charter schools. 


Facilities were a common theme Wednesday as Oktibbeha County School District Conservator Margie Pulley and Starkville School District Superintendent Lewis Holloway laid out various scenarios on how to merge students into a unified school system. 


While the commission made no decisions on the matter, most seemed to support keeping the county's two elementary schools intact while exploring an option to bring in high school students to the city's system. Facility upgrades could be mapped out by the consolidation committee and implemented once the districts are merged. 


Holloway called a plan to bring grades 9-12 to Starkville High School, an idea that would send 2015 enrollment past the 1,500 mark for the campus, "the most obvious situation." Increased enrollment would strain the school's cafeteria, he said. Under that plan, the campus could require an almost $500,000 improvement to that wing alone. 


Another idea pitched - pull ninth graders out of SHS and move them to another facility - would ease the high school's capacity and curtail the need for cafeteria expansion. Holloway pitched the idea of building a new school for grades 8-9, which could cost an estimated $14 million. A cheaper model, he said, would be to bring the county's eighth and ninth graders to Armstrong Middle School and then construct a new school for grades 6-7 in the city.  


Committee members mulled adding additional grades to the county's elementary schools, but Pulley said that was the least-ideal plan since a seventh grade option has different requirements than elementary classrooms, which in turn would raise costs. Even if left intact, she said the county's elementary schools would require physical renovations and construction projects: East Oktibbeha County Elementary, for example, needs a new parking lot, gymnasium repairs and cosmetic touchups. 


"We think the high school (option) works; the elementary in the county works," Holloway said. "The problem is grades 7-8." 


The potential MSU partnership, Shaw said during that point of discussion, could focus its efforts on the middle school arena.  


"We'd love to see it grow beyond (grades 6-8)," he said, but the partnership itself could not service the district's entire middle school enrollment. Consolidation committee members will meet again 5 p.m. Oct. 3 at the county education building.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch