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Gadsden drawing students back with new high school

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A new consolidated high school is reversing a trend of white flight from Gadsden schools as students come back for a wide range of advanced placement courses, fine arts offerings and athletic choices.

That is the message given Lawrence County school board members by the principal of newly opened Gadsden City High School Dr. Ed Miller and Gadsden Supt. of Education Dr. Bob Russell.

Lawrence County Supt. of Education Dexter Rutherford took school board members Dr. Beth Vinson, Wendell Logan and Member-Elect Gary Bradford to look at the new 1,550-student school Monday.

Board chairman Jackie Burch and Member Bobby Diggs were not able to make the trip.

The Gadsden system has about the same number of students Lawrence County has.

It was also operating under a long-standing desegregation order by the federal courts.

Miller said problems associated with that order prompted officials to begin the process of combining the city's three high schools into one.

Gadsden City High was formed from Emma Sansom High, Gadsden High and Litchfield High. One had been predominantly black, one predominantly white and one about 50-50. Of the previous schools, one had an enrollment of about 350, one had about 450 and one had about 700.

"You can obviously offer more electives in a school of 700 than you can in a school of 350, and that was causing problems," Miller said.

Miller said the judge quickly agreed to remove the court order and move the system to unitary status when it finalized plans to build the single high school.

The new school's student population is 58% black. Miller said the system had been losing students to the surrounding Etowah County system, which is about 90% white.

However, he said significant numbers of while students have returned to the system to take advantage of a wide range of courses and activities the system is now able to offer since the high schools consolidated.

Miller said the school has gained about 50 students from the combined enrollment last year.

Twelve students have transferred from private schools since the beginning of the school year.

Gadsden schools had previously offered only one foreign language. Now they offer all high school students four: Spanish, French, German and Latin.

The school has a fine arts wing with a piano lab where school board members saw about 20 students taking piano lessons at the same time.

In addition to piano and band, the school offers choral classes and string instruction (violin and cello). It has a 200-member choral group.

The science wing houses upto date labs for chemistry, biology and physics.

One hallway is dubbed the "Freshman Academy" and all ninth-grade classes are restricted to that hall.

The building has a 777-seat auditorium with full theatrical stage equipment for plays, performances and community events.

Miller said many parents questioned security of a larger combined school.

"We've had two students suspended for fighting since we opened," he said. "We had a lot more than that by this time last year in the three schools we had before."

Assistant principals' offices are distributed around the building. Security cameras allow observation of almost the entire building. The school has three school resource officers.

Russell said school officials went to the community to sell parents on the idea of the consolidated school.

"It was simple," he said. "We convinced them it would provide a better education for their children. We get to offer so much more coursewise that students are better prepared."

Russell said athletics was a concern for some parents.

"You can only have one quarterback on the team," he said.

Miller said now athletics is a drawing card for the school because it offers wider choices.

"We have a full-fledged ninthgrade football team and a JV team that plays a full schedule," he said. "They compete and develop on their level rather than throwing a ninth-grader into varsity play before he is ready."

The varsity football team was defeated in the first round of the state playoffs.

A committee of students from each of the three old high schools was formed to choose the school's name, school colors, a nickname and a mascot.

"Their only rule was that it couldn't be from any of the old schools," he said. They chose the Titans.

Miller said combining the schools did not "save" any money.

"It's not like you are going to be able to put money in a savings account," he said. "It is just you are putting the money you are spending to much better use. You get the benefit of volume."

Lawrence County board members are considering alternatives for reorganizing county schools.

Earlier this year, they had discussed consolidating schools so the county has three high schools instead of the current seven.

Rutherford is now suggesting they consider two high schools. One would be on the current East Lawrence campus. Speake's 9- 12 students would be combined there.

The other five high schools in the county would be combined into a new school that would be built somewhere northwest of Moulton.

That school would have about 850 students and would have a ratio of about 60/40 white to black students.

East Lawrence would have about 700 students and would be about 70/30 white to black.

If such a proposal was implemented, students from Moulton Middle School would be moved to the current LCHS campus.

A state bond issue that is expected next spring would provide financing for the project.

The school board will consider proposals at a coming work session.

They recently designated Birmingham architectural firm Goodwyn, Mills and Caewood to design future projects.

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