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Community meetings wrap up with much on schools’ to-do list
By Deangelo McDaniel
The Decatur Daily

Daily photo by Jeronimo Nisa
Lorelei Bachuss was the youngest participant in the “We Know, We Can” community meeting Tuesday night at Austin High School, which brought in almost 70 residents ready to voice their opinions of the Decatur City Schools System.

The last of four community meetings to discuss the future of Decatur City Schools brought some of the first strong opposition to a single, consolidated high school.

It also generated a strong voice of concern about the graduation rate and the need for more parental involvement in the school system.

Almost 70 residents attended the event Tuesday night at Austin High School, and they praised the system for holding the meetings.

"Putting together these programs means the system is not satisfied where they are, and this is good for Decatur," Don Schaffer said.

Attendees were divided into groups, and one was more than halfway through its session when a facilitator encouraged its members to dream big — with no financial restraints.

"If money is no object, we need to keep two high schools," Ray Cain said.

He suggested the board start by building a new Decatur High and renovate Ogle Stadium.

Cain said the system should complete its plans for another academic wing at Austin and construct a football stadium the school can call its own.

His comments came after another person said high schools are community centers, and the board has to strike a happy medium to avoid consolidation.

Austin High teacher Cindy Hunt said she didn't care if Decatur had one or two high schools as long as the curriculum prepares students to compete globally.

"Every child that graduates better be ready to do education after high school," Hunt said. "Whatever configuration we have, we need to support what the data drives."

Bill Jordan, a retired plant manager and school volunteer, said some form of education will be required after high school.

"Plants will be looking for employees with 12-plus," he said. "That plus may be a six-month training course, but none will accept just a high school graduate."

Jordan also raised concern about Decatur's 68 percent graduation rate, which is one of the lowest in the area and four points below the state average.

"We can't accept this," he said. "We've got to be at least at 85 percent."

The school system didn't reach its goal of hearing from 1,000 city residents in person, but the number of people offering input will increase because of an online survey.

Decatur City Schools Foundation Executive Director Jesslyn Reeves said residents can take the online survey through Dec. 31.

About 450 residents attended the meetings, although some attended each meeting. Reeves said she expects another 300 to take the survey.

Superintendent Ed Nichols said an outside consultant will compile the information and present it during the board's Jan. 8 meeting. He said the results of a facilities study will be complete by them.

"We're going to form a strategic team that will be from a cross-section of the community," Nichols said. "This group will look at the data and help us prepare a strategic plan for the school system."

Online survey

If you did not attend one of the "We Know, We Can" community meetings, your voice can still be heard. The same questions posed during the four meetings can be answered online at www.surveymonkey.com/s/weknowwecan.

What they said

Question: What do you like about Decatur?

Responses: Strong community support for schools; recreational opportunities; big enough, but not too big; downtown growth; distance from airport; distance from first-class medical facilities; closeness to river; college in downtown; city's potential; no urban sprawl; diversity; industrial base; open to newcomers.

Question: What do you like about the schools in Decatur?

Responses: Superintendent Ed Nichols; no conflict among elected leaders; magnet schools; open to newcomers; robotics program; course variety; system prepares students for college; extracurricular activities; teachers.

Question: What do you want Decatur to look like in five, 10 or 15 years?

Responses: Thriving small town with retirement atmosphere; residential development on river; population of 70,000-plus; major decrease in poverty level; good-paying jobs; more college graduates coming back; industrial growth; volunteerism up; crime rate down; fine arts center expanded; recognition of unique ecosystem; adequate housing for young professionals; 20 fewer title-pawn shops on Sixth Avenue; buried utility lines on Sixth Avenue; more green spaces; tear down middle schools without windows; better roads; move railroad tracks so city can become one; convention center; more bike trails; entire city with Wi-Fi.

Question: What do you want the Decatur City Schools to look like in five, 10 or 15 years?

Responses: Graduation rate at 85 percent; technical school; two high schools; better technology; system that meets everyone's needs; all schools following "seven habits" concept.

Question: What will it take to get all these things we want in our community and for our schools?

Responses: Leadership; money and dedication; parental commitment; true belief that we can do this; relentlessness; jobs; intelligent allocation of available money; patience and vision; more public forums; more community pride; more government involvement; property tax increase.

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