Walking through the main hallway of Cummings High School, Athletic Director Kyle Pycraft stopped and looked at the trophy cases that lined the path.
Indented in two long walls near the entrance are modest wooden shelves with protective glass, where years of county and state championship trophies stand shoulder to shoulder.
“Strong and successful athletics are a big part of Cummings’ history and culture,” Pycraft said. “We actually ran out of room and have boxes of trophies from recent years down in the office until we can make more room.”
In a proposed redistricting of Alamance Burlington School System (ABSS), Cummings would be turned into a School of the Arts, which could change the 45-year-old school’s consistent and long history of athletic success. According to ABSS Superintendent William Harrison there will still be some presence of athletics at Cummings and currently no plans to cut the program.
The transition of Cummings is just one facet of the estimated $150 million redistricting plan, which includes building an additional high school between the Eastern and Southern zones as well as renovations and additions to current facilities.
Alamance County is to projected to grow from the current population of about 160,000 people to an estimated 200,000 in 2030, something that ABSS was forced to consider when looking at its already overcrowded district.
That expected growth combined with a lack of resources, older facilities that needed updating and overcrowding — the worst case being at Southern and Eastern — were factors that led the Board to the idea of building an additional high school, which is currently being referred to as New High School. The high school is estimated to cost around $50 million and able to support more than 1,000 students.
Eastern, Western and Southern high schools will undergo about $2 million each in additions and renovations, while Graham High School, similar to what is being done at Cummings, will be transitioned into a Skilled Trades School.
With a price tag of close to $150 million, construction and renovations would take until 2021, with the first year of students being affected with the redistricting being current fifth graders.
But all these changes come with a cost that’s more than monetary, even if it isn’t the most ideal situation for students, parents, teachers and administrators affected.
“Schools right now are bulging at the seams,” Pycraft said. “I get that something needs to be done. Maybe it’s just me being selfish cause I love Cummings High School and I would love to see it stay the way it is.”
The road to redistricting
Before Harrison joined ABSS, the community and school board came together in 2013 and adopted what Harrison referred to as a “bold vision for public education in the county” followed by the creation of a strategic plan to help make the vision a reality.
When Harrison arrived in July 2014 not much action had been taken on the strategic plan, which included a five-year master plan for facilities and a master plan for specialized programs such as language immersion programs, career technical education centers and a cultural arts theme in some elementary schools.
So later that year on a few packed and purposeful afternoons members of an ABSS task force on facilities divided and conquered the district, ensuring that every school was visited, observed and noted.
Once on site members had a check list of major points to take note of — presence or lack of overcrowding, the status of the building, potential needed repairs and possible safety issues.
According to Harrison, the task force found that there were a lot of needs, especially issues of overcrowding, that were too big for a simple redistricting to solve.
“After we looked at the task force results was when we formed the idea to build a new high school between Eastern and Southern,” Harrison said.
Harrison said that after the City of Burlington schools (Williams and Cummings) and county schools (Western, Eastern, Southern and Graham) merged to become one district in 1996, the locations of the schools in relation to each other didn’t make any sense.
Cummings and Williams, centrally located in somewhat close proximity to each other because of their former ties to Burlington, and Graham were clustered together right on top of each other.
“If I could start all over again I would simply cut the almost perfect rectangle of Alamance County into quarters and have Western, Eastern, Southern and the new school location [between Eastern and Southern] and simply do away with other three schools,” Harrison said. “But you can’t close three schools. So then we started looking at it more and it made sense to say, “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing with Cummings and Graham [and make them non-zoned, specialized schools that any student could attend].
“What we’ve tried to do is ensure we have equitable programs at all schools."
The idea of redrawing district lines and shuffling students around was first introduced to the public in 2015.
When he was sworn into his role as the leader of a district of more than 400 square miles, approximately 22,000 students, and close to 30 schools, he was also sworn in as a pioneer to redistrict and expand. Having done so at twice in previous roles, Harrison came with the experience and background to lead the charge.
More than two years in the making, the most recent redistricting outline and sixth map iteration was laid out Sept. 8 during an open forum at Williams High School, the first of four forums held during the month of September in an effort for ABSS to be transparent with parents and students, as well as provide time for people to voice opinions, complaints or questions.
At the forums information about the district’s strategic plan, School of the Arts, Skilled Trades Academy and future renovations were also presented to parents, and community members voiced their opinions on everything from socioeconomic diversity to academic rigor to transportation options.
For some, the forums opened their eyes to the plan and left them with a change of heart from previous, possibly negative, viewpoints.
“I was not happy when I first heard about this plan last year,” said Laura Dunn, a parent who attended the Western High School public forum Sept. 15. “But now that I’ve seen the proposals and heard more about it, I believe it’s really coming together.”
In a random survey, nearly 50 percent of the 73 respondents said they "strongly do not support" the plan. Results were mixed with regard to both the School of Arts and Skilled Trades Academy additions.
Socioeconomic diversity shift
If the redistricting goes as currently planned, students will be shuffled around and potentially placed in a different high school than families originally envisioned and planned for, much to the dismay of some residents.
“I get that families buy a house based on what schools are in that zone, I really do,” Harrison said.
Wade Garrett bought a house in Southern Alamance's school district three years ago solely because of the schools. A Cummings alumnus, he said he was determined to send his daughter to a better school than he attended.
As a result of this redistricting plan, he'll be pulling his daughter out of the school system regardless of the vote and homeschooling her instead.
"I'm beyond irate that they are doing this," Garrett said. "They cite low parental involvement as a reason to shut down Cummings and Graham and stuff those kids into the already packed classrooms of other schools. I know better. It's not like that's going to get these parents involved. And if they think I'm going to fill in for them, they're wrong.
"We're not stupid. All they are doing is attempting to hide the failing grades and dropout rates of Cummings and Graham among schools with denser white student populations. It won't work. Those schools and communities will just be ruined, and whites will pack up and move further down the interstate."
But in the eyes of others, the redistricting, which in some cases would bring students from diverse racial, social and economic background, is doing good for students.
When asked about the diversity shift that redistricting would bring, Sean Quinn’s eyes lit up and he leaned forward in the desk chair of his Western Alamance history classroom.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” he said. “I’m highly in favor of it. We have poor diversity in our schools and are serving a certain clientele and we are not providing fair or maybe equitable education to all. I don’t think that’s intentional, but I think that’s the nature of a school system that was started in the 1960s and I don’t think there were long term plans.”
Cummings and Graham are both located in and around some of the most impoverished areas of the county, something Harrison and his team considered when thinking about equity, diversity and advancement among all schools and ultimately led them to decide to make those two schools the specialized programs.
“Part of our concern about Cummings and Graham is that they’re 85 to 90 percent free and reduced lunch,” Harrison said. “And very little demographic diversity. All children, regardless of their circumstance, must have an equal opportunity to realize their potential.”
Kendall McBrew, a Burlington resident and Williams Class of 2010 graduate, said at the Sept. 4 Williams public forum that she hopes the committee will keep in mind the most impoverished students in the county when making redistricting decisions.
“A world class education system cannot just work for some,” McBrew said. “It must reflect the county and its growth and the future of the county.”
While many have voiced that it will be a challenge at first to bring together the cultures of multiple elementary and middle schools and communities into the same high school, Quinn has hope.
“As educators we need to find a way to create a diverse school whether it be socioeconomically, ethnically, racially,” he said. “We won’t have it perfect but five or six years from now we should have a school system where kids get the opportunity to meet other types of kids and interact with other types of kids.”
“It’s no different than what you’re trying to achieve at Elon,” Quinn said. “Elon clearly is limited in its diversity but has a plan to expand. In a globalized world you have to do that. We don’t live in little bubbles anymore.”
Special programming strategy
In an effort to support more students and propel them to a successful future, ABSS announced the establishment of a School of the Arts modeled after the Durham School of the Arts and to be housed at Cummings, as well as a Skilled Trades Academy to be located at Graham.
In order for the programming to work and be a success, students and families must have interest. Harrison and the board decided they needed to better understand the level of interest of the community, so they sent out a survey to gauge general interest in specialized programs and opinions.
Some opinions, though, are already formed and known, especially from those at Cummings and Graham who will see dramatic physical and cultural changes in their schools.
For Cummings Track and Field coach Don Davis, while he admitted he hasn’t done enough research to have formed a definite opinion, what he knows for sure is that athletics at Cummings needs to stay.
“From my perspective as a track coach I’d hate to see the athletics go away because Cummings has a rich, rich program,” he said. “For Cummings once athletics shuts down everything else shuts down with it.”
Davis, who has been a coach at Cummings since 1987 where he created the most successful track and field program in the state, values athletics not for the sport as much as he does for what it does for students.
“If you take athletics away it’s a big part of what we do,” he said. “The reason we focus on and push athletics is so we can eliminate some of the artificial barriers kids have.
"Athletics should mirror society. It should have diversity. It should allow for different sports to have a different clientele of kids succeeding. We have a rich history of football success at Western and there’s a possibility that we might not be as good. Some say we shouldn’t do it then. Athletics is a piece but school is the reason we’re here. So whatever is best for the kids educationally should fall first but then athletics should fall in line. You can’t not do something that’s right for kids educationally because it might hurt the athletic programs. The athletic programs will survive."
Money, money, money
The proposed plan with all of its caveats, facets and layers comes with a price, and sophisticated strategy to get there.
Harrison is planning on acquiring the needed $150 million in two major ways– a bond and private partnerships.
He was originally planning on submitting a final draft of the plan to the Board of Education for a vote on Dec. 5, but delayed the vote until January.
“I’m two for two,” Harrison said, referring to the two other times he proposed, petitioned and oversaw the redistricting of school districts. “If it doesn’t get passed, though, which I don’t see happening, we’ll just have to cut on aspects of the project.”
If the Board approves the plan in January, then that would allow the Board of Commissioners, who are the funding branch for the initiative, to begin their decision making process about how much they’re willing to pay and how they’d pay for it, if they’re at all willing.
A funding possibility is a bond, either a general obligation or revenue bond. Revenue bonds allow for money to be taken from a specific revenue stream while general obligation bonds come from the city or county and could be considered public debt and likely lead to a tax increase.
The decision whether or not to utilize a bond can only be made during a countywide election, the next one being March 2018.
“We can’t do but so much more work before we get the money,” Harrison said. “We’re in talks now of working with an outreach company to help get information out to as many parents, families and community members as possible in the time that we have.”
If everything goes as planned and gets approved by mid-2018, construction and renovations would take about two years, completing the redistricting process in 2021 seven years after its inception.