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Austin, Decatur High aren’t the same in terms of educational opportunities
Austin, Decatur High aren’t the same in terms of educational opportunities
By Deangelo McDaniel
The Decatur Daily

Gary Cosby Jr./Decatur Daily
Student Michael Staten watches as instructor Sherman Leeth tests a truck tail light during Austin High School’s auto mechanics class

Curricula differ at Decatur’s two high schools, an issue Superintendent Ed Nichols said is unfair to students and must be addressed.

Core curricula— math, science, history and English — are about the same at Decatur and Austin high schools.
The biggest difference is career technical curricula, in which Austin holds an advantage.

Assistant Principals Stan Carr of Decatur and Ressa Chittam of Austin, who coordinate schedules of students who move between schools to take classes, said some students are left out because of space.

“We have students at Austin who don’t get into career tech classes at their own school,” Chittam said.
Ramsey Huffman, who was in charge of career technical programs with the district for 15 years, said 60 to 70 students are waiting to get into the auto mechanics class. He said the lack of space is a “serious” problem, adding that “we would have to put students in the parking lot to enroll more.”

Huffman said the problem is at both high school campuses.

The school system has some dual enrollment programs with Calhoun Community College, but this means students stay after school for some classes.

Precision machine and drafting and design are offered through Calhoun at Austin High. The school system also offers EMT classes to second-semester seniors. Huffman said about 18 students are enrolled in this program.

One program that has not gotten off the ground is aviation maintenance, which is offered at Pryor Field through Enterprise Junior College.

“We have beaten this community to death and we only have five students in this program,” Huffman said.

Debra Baird, dean of the College of Education at Athens State University, said the lack of technical classes is a problem in most school systems. She said the situation contributes to the dropout rate because students who don’t plan to attend college and can’t get a trade in high school just quit.

“The state has spent so much time testing students to graduate and has forgot to prepare many of them for life after graduation,” Baird said.

Some of the classes at Austin that Decatur doesn’t offer are auto mechanic, medical careers, machine tooling and ROTC. Carr said Decatur has students on the waiting list to take auto mechanic and medical careers.

Meanwhile, Chittam said the same is true for students at Austin who want to take carpentry at Decatur but have to wait.

Both of the more than 50-year-old schools are landlocked, meaning any plans to expand career technical classes would be difficult, school officials said.

If the schools can’t expand their programs, the waiting list is likely to grow because the state is adopting new graduation requirements that will allow juniors and seniors to enroll in more career tech classes as electives.

Asked if the situation was fair for students, the assistant principals deferred to the superintendent.

“No, because we’re not able to accommodate our kids,” Nichols said.

The preliminary draft of a $12,500 facilities study done recently for the school system suggests consolidating the high schools and using one of the existing facilities as a technical school. The school board has not discussed any options, but Nichols said doing nothing is not one.

During four community meetings the Decatur City Schools Foundation held in December, residents pleaded with the school system to do more for students who may not attend college. The most in-depth discussion about the topic happened during the meeting at Decatur High, when resident Russ Harrelson said Decatur had the “worst facilities in north Alabama.”

Whether athletics or academics, he said “they are both outdated” and “25 years behind schedule.”

The facilities study will be released to the public today at 3:30 p.m. at Leon Sheffield Magnet Elementary. Parts of it will become part of the school system’s strategic plan.

The consolidated school option would give the system an opportunity to incorporate technical classes. Medical career classes that require science, for example, could be housed in the science wing of a new high school.

“We would intertwine career tech in the setting on the high school,” Nichols said.

If Decatur keeps two high schools, the best way to deal with the matter is to construct a technical school, said Nichols, who took over as superintendent last summer.

Hartselle faced similar challenges when William Michael Reed became superintendent of education in 2005. He pressed the board to expand technical programs for the same reasons given at Decatur’s community meetings.

Hartselle’s new school, which is slated to open this year, has a state-of-the-art career technical wing.
Madison City Schools did the same thing at James Clemens, a high school that opened in August and has a comprehensive career technical program.

Morgan County is planning a new Priceville High School. Superintendent Billy Hopkins Jr. said all stakeholders, including career tech teachers, will play a role in designing the facility.

Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or


Facilities study

Stephen Salmon of RKR Planning Services of Bremen, Ga., will present the Decatur City Schools’ facilities study at 3:30 p.m. today at Leon Sheffield Magnet School.

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