With early learning at the West Broad School off the table for now, the Clarke County School District will use a Head Start grant to renovate the old Gaines Elementary building and turn it into an early learning center.
Initially the plan had been to renovate eight classrooms at the Whitehead Road Annex and eight at old Gaines, but after feeding children at the Whitehead Road annex proved problematic, district officials decided to renovate both wings of old Gaines instead, Superintendent Xernona Thomas told school board members at a Nov. 4 work session.
Board members Tawana Mattox and LaKeisha Gantt said they’re glad the Eastside will have access to early learning, but with the Whitehead annex off the table, Gantt asked, what about the Westside? And what happens when the federal grant expires? The Early Learning Center off Hancock Avenue will remain open and serve the Westside, Thomas said. After five years, the grant will continue as long as CCSD offers early learning, according to Director of Early Learning Karen Higgenbotham.
Earlier this year, Thomas proposed to restore one 1938 building on the West Broad campus and build a new one to serve as an early learning center. But the school board voted it down in large part because Thomas recommended tearing down another historic building next door that historic preservationists said could be saved.
CCSD is “exploring options” for the West Broad campus, Thomas said, and early learning remains one of those options. But the district had to switch gears or lose the Head Start grant, because its deadline is the end of next March. At least one wing of old Gaines will be ready for children to move in by then, Thomas said.
Since the new Gaines Elementary opened in 2004, the old Gaines building has been used as an overflow site as the school district systematically renovated or demolished and rebuilt its outdated elementary and middle schools. Except for Clarke Middle, which will not require moving students off-site, those projects are now complete.
Board member Linda Davis said she still wants to see an early learning center at West Broad. “We have a commitment to doing it there, we have two different ways of doing it there, and I don’t see why we’re not following through,” she said.
But the physical space isn’t adequate for the operational needs while keeping both buildings, Thomas said. The disadvantages of a three-building plan remain, and the number of classrooms might need to be reduced to make it work, she said, adding that her priority has been to use the $15 million in grants over five years before the opportunity expires.
“So what you’re saying is that the three-building concept was never an option,” board member Mumbi Anderson said. Thomas responded that she was being transparent at Davis’ request about what options the administration was considering, but that three buildings were never viable. “It can go there, but it can’t go there in a way that’s fair to the teachers and the staff,” Thomas said.
Anderson said it was never clearly communicated that three buildings were not an option. “I don’t know where that breakdown in communication happened, but I’m really disappointed to hear that now,” she said.
School officials will go back and take another look, Thomas said. It’s possible that by reducing classrooms from 16 to 10, CCSD might be able to save the Campbell Street building along with the Minor Street building while still leaving enough space for parking and playgrounds, she said.
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