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Speakers voice support for small schools

South Boston News
Halifax County Middle School seventh grader Langston Foy, one of the speakers at Tuesday’s public meeting at Sinai. / October 14, 2021
A Tuesday night public meeting at Sinai Elementary School brought forth more opposition to elementary school consolidation, from one of the school communities that would be most affected by the idea.

The School Board listening session, the second of five public meetings this month, drew a crowd of about 60 people. Speakers included Sinai teachers, parents and one young student who spoke in favor of keeping the neighborhood school.

Stepping up first to the microphone was Langston Chism Foy, a former student of Sinai Elementary and now a seventh-grade student at Halifax County Middle School. Foy shared the number of COVID-19 cases at Sinai — four — and compared that to the 24 reported virus infections at Cluster Springs Elementary. Sinai has 178 students, and Cluster Springs — the second most populous elementary school in Halifax County — has 522 students. South Boston Elementary has 609 students.

“Welcome to the best elementary school in the county — yes, the best,” said Foy, speaking to school trustees. “What other school can you walk in the door to a warm friendly environment where everyone knows your name?”

The School Board is considering the idea of consolidating county elementary schools to free up money for higher employee compensation and alleviate the future expense of renovating the five oldest elementary buildings, all of which lie north of South Boston.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg has called on the School Board to bring the number of elementary schools in Halifax County down to four — Cluster Springs and South Boston, joined by Scottsburg and Sydnor Jennings, which would be renovated and expanded to help absorb the student populations at shuttered schools.

Clays Mill, Meadville and Sinai would all close under Lineburg’s plan, although he has provided cost estimates for operating five elementary schools — with a new facility built to serve students who now attend Meadville and Sinai — and closing Clays Mill, the smallest school in the county.

Foy brought up the findings of a 12-month study by the Small School Coalition, addressing safety, teaching conditions and academics at large and small schools. In smaller schools, he said, students fight less, feel safer, and come to school more frequently, the study showed. Teachers in small schools feel more committed, connected to their work and have a stronger desire for their students to succeed.

Small schools mean smaller class sizes where teachers are able to provide more one-on-one instruction, Foy said.

“A good thing about Sinai, we would ask more questions because we felt more comfortable in smaller groups,” he added.

The middle school student asked trustees to ponder how much time students will spend on the bus back and forth to school if Sinai is closed and its population is dispensed elsewhere. Even if a new elementary facilities is built to replace Sinai and Meadville, he asked, how long will the bus rides be? Isn’t there a driver shortage? What will we do with all the teachers? Who would lose their jobs? he asked.

“Sinai teachers, students, and staff have a sense of belonging, pride in their community, their school and their self. Just like the saying, once a Comet always a Comet — once an Eagle always an Eagle,” said Foy.

Concluding, Foy offered these last thoughts: “It seems that most of our schools are being designed by the guys on the outside that have grown too big for the people on the inside — remember us little guys grow up to be the big guys.”

Other speakers also argued that smaller schools and small class sizes are in the best interest of teachers and students.

Brittany Garrett, mother of three children who attend Sinai, said her last child will be enrolled next fall. Garrett said her oldest son, a fourth grader with special needs, will not get the individualized attention he needs in a classroom filled with lots of students.

“It doesn’t feel like closing Sinai is an option — it feels like we are having our entire world ripped apart, our children are going to have their entire world ripped apart from being with the caring loving people [at Sinai],” said Garrett.

Garrett shared her son would have to be homeschooled if it were not for the love and support from Sinai Principal Josephine Davis and the teachers who make school life possible for him.

Pediatric dentist Bridget Brown does not have any students enrolled at Sinai Elementary, but her children were enrolled at one of the larger elementary schools, either South Boston or Cluster Springs, before they moved into the Meadville school district. Brown said she has since been polling parents and their children on their thoughts on closing the schools as they have come into her office for dental visits.

“This is the first [consolidation public] meeting I’ve been able to attend, and it seems it is about saving money and contingency plans. I’m not sure that it was ever mentioned how any of this will improve the education for those in Halifax County,” said Brown.

She, too, asked how increasing class sizes and bus rides with school rezoning will improve education in Halifax County. Brown pointed to her five years as a PTO board member at one of the elementary schools with 600 students, where she said only seven parents would attended the meetings. At much smaller Meadville Elementary, some 30 parents are engaged monthly in Meadville PTO business.

“That’s the parent engagement at a large school. If you think big schools is going to get these parents involved, you are wrong. If you want parent and family engagement, big schools is not the way to go because all of a sudden your child is a number — they are not a kid anymore,” she said.

Lenzy Terry, another speaker, said it would be wrong to make Sinai students ride longer distances to school, from one of the lowest-income areas of Halifax County.

“We need to rebuild these small schools,” he said. “If you are not from here, you may think this quartmer is shinier than a penny, but there are a lot more pennies here than one shiny quarter” — his way to advocating for smaller school populations

Angie Collins, sister of late high school JROTC instructor Gregory Scott, used his signature phrase — “Too easy” — to express his opposition to closing Sinai, where Scott completed his elementary education.

“This is too easy for me. I want to say to you all if you look at all the kids who have graduated top 10 in Halifax County High School, they came from here, Sinai,” said Collins.

Keeping smaller schools open will help keep the students safer during the pandemic, she added.

“We have room to spread our students out,” said Collins. “A lot of people get a lot of good from this school — keep Sinai open,” said Collins.

Lineburg, in presenting the case for school consolidation, noted that Sinai Elementary and Meadville Elementary were bypassed in the last round of school capital improvements, when South Boston and Cluster Springs were built and Scottsburg, Sydnor Jennings and Clays Mill were expanded, with the addition of gymnasiums. The cost of building a gymnasium and making other improvements at Sinai Elementary is estimated at $10 million.

Currently, physical education is conducted in a mobile unit located on the school property.

Lineburg said it was a proud moment for him and school trustees to celebrate Sinai’s full academic accreditation two years ago, prior to the pandemic, but other pressing needs leave the School Board with difficult decisions to make.

“The emotional attachment is real, but we have to look at the financial perspective of personnel and facilities,” said Lineburg.

Sinai Elementary has an enrollment of 178 students and capacity for 397. The school is being utilized at 44.8 percent capacity. There are 219 empty seats at Sinai due to the decrease in population.

The Sinai building is plagued by constant problems with plumbing in which the original iron pipes get clogged. Upgrading the HVAC system will cost approximately $700,000, replacing window units used for air conditioning and electric heaters for individual classrooms. Sinai also does not have ADA accessibility.

Upcoming public meetings will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at Clays Mill Elementary, Thursday, Oct. 21 Scottsburg Elementary School, and Thursday, Oct. 28 at Meadville Elementary. All public hearings begin at 6:30 p.m.

All questions from the public will be answered at some point after the final public hearing. If you are unable to attend a meeting, you may email comments to interim Director of Secondary Education Scott Worner at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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