By LANA CLIFTON
Dr. Richard Abernathy has been the superintendent of Bryant Schools since August of 2003. During that time, Bryant has seen a substantial growth in population. To accommodate this growth and the resulting influx of students, the district has built a new middle school and a new elementary school, has rezoned and has developed a plan for a new high school building.
More changes are to come, however, as the city continues to grow and as the school district strives to maintain the level of excellence the community expects.
Official enrollment numbers will not be available until Oct. 1, but from the numbers reported thus far, it appears there has been an increase in enrollment of around 220 over last year, bringing the total number of students in Bryant Schools to around 7,600. Along with this rate of growth come challenges.
According to Abernathy, one of those challenges is maintaining an appropriate student-to-teacher ratio. Before the start of school, a new kindergarten teacher was hired and a new class started at Salem Elementary. Shortly after school started, the district had to do the same thing at Bryant Elementary.[more]
“We had a large number of kindergarten kids this year … beyond what we had anticipated. Last year we had about 566 and this year about 635,” said Abernathy. “One of the challenges we are going to face this year is trying to get prepared for next year. We are tight with teachers and schedules. We are trying to put together a plan to address those numbers, address growth and be prepared by next fall.”
Increasing the number of teachers is not the only staffing issue involved with growth. Food service workers and transportation workers must also be added. According to Abernathy, the district had to add two new bus routes this year.
He added that some schools were full, and room had to be made to accommodate more students. He said the elementary schools will probably be okay through next year because of some room for overflow at Bryant Elementary. A new elementary school may be in the future, but the district must make some decisions on how to handle growth sooner than that.
“We can’t build a building between now and next fall,” explained Abernathy.
He added they were looking at a combination of options including the rezoning of some areas. He noted Bethel Middle School currently has an enrollment of around 819. Last year, there were only 770 students there, and the building was only designed for 750.
To ease the burden on Bethel, one option the district is considering would give parents the choice of going to Bryant Middle School instead of Bethel next year. He said, until now, the district has tried to send students from Collegeville, Springhill, and Salem Elementary Schools to Bethel because they are all on the same side of the interstate, but that may change.
“Any time you are talking about rezoning, obviously that throws up some flags. We will try to be the least intrusive possible,” said Abernathy.
He admitted portable buildings were also an option, but not the best one.
“From an administrative perspective, if you have available classrooms, then it’s kind of silly to be hauling in a bunch of portable buildings to a facility that can’t handle it if we’ve got a facility three miles from it that can,” he explained.
Another facility in the district that has been affected by the recent growth in Bryant is the high school. In March, the citizens of Bryant passed a 3.9 millage increase to pay for a new high school building and other facility improvements. According to Abernathy, if all goes according to plan, this year’s ninth grade students should be seniors when the new building opens in August, 2012.
He said the location and layout were mostly planned with a few modifications still to be made to the exterior.
“We are hoping to really put it together starting the first of the year and start construction late spring,” he commented.
The proposed location for the structure is just off of Reynolds Road. The district has purchased the former NAPA auto parts store and property next to it. If all is approved, this will be cleared, and the land will be part of the location for the new building.
The construction will take place while classes continue in existing buildings. Abernathy explained that safety has been considered.
“Once they get started, the construction area will be fenced off, so students will not have access to the construction area,” he said.
Abernathy said he realizes this may cause a parking issue. The administration is looking into the possibility of running a shuttle bus to help with overflow.
As with Bethel Middle School and Hurricane Creek Elementary, the district plans to design the new building as a green school with an LEED certification, but the look will be different from the other two.
“We wanted something that matches this campus. We wanted something that would kind of blend in with the current facilities and not stick out. So, it will be more of a brick type facility. It won’t have the large standing roof. We’ll try to get something that will blend in, but at the same time, it will be a green building.”
Some of the buildings will remain on the campus and will be remodeled.
“Our goal is that when we are ready to open this [new building] that we will be able to walk off that campus and everything be remodeled, new, something that students will be proud to attend.”
The Bryant School District was the recipient of some stimulus money. Abernathy said most of the money would be used for supplies that go in the classrooms. Some of those supplies include materials needed to implement a Response to Interventions (RTI) program.
“A lot of kids fall through the cracks and start getting behind, and there are teachers trying to teach the entire class and there aren’t really additional materials or supplies for a student who may be struggling,” he stated. “So we are very focused on the RTI program, and every school is kind of developing their own program, but, with stimulus money, we are able to purchase a lot of materials, various programs to help address some of those kids that may be struggling.”
Teachers would receive training in the implementation of the program. An amplification system has been ordered for each elementary classroom. This system helps with the RTI program by targeting students with auditory issues. Abernathy said studies have shown this helps students focus on what the teacher is saying, even when the teacher is not facing him or her. Other RTI materials include computers, ELMO units (a digital visual presenter), smart boards (a combination of computer technology and a whiteboard), and other technology and supplies.
Abernathy said the RTI program was being emphasized by the district to prevent students from failing.
“We’re trying to catch those kids before they get so far behind that they can’t get caught up,” he said.
Abernathy added that some of the stimulus money would be used to update high school science classrooms. Other money has been set aside for teacher grants. For a limited time, teachers can fill on an online application to ask for approval on items they feel will help them with instruction. Surveillance cameras and energy management control systems that monitor heating and air to save money on energy costs are two other items for which the stimulus money has been earmarked.
Recently the school district received an “A” on the Arkansas Policy Foundation’s annual report on Arkansas schools. Abernathy sounded proud of the district, but he made it clear he was not ready to sit back and relax when it comes to school improvement.
“It’s always encouraging when it’s validated how good your district is,” admitted Abernathy. “I think we have a very good district, and that goes exactly back to what this community expects. Our community wants a good school district, and that’s what they expect, and we’re able to produce that. So, we received the reward, but it’s not just the school district. It really, in my opinion, reflects on the community. I think that’s probably the biggest most contributing factor – community expectations. People move here because of the reputation we have and the reputation our schools have.”
Abernathy also congratulated the teachers of the district for the grade.
“Our staff makes this possible. We are fortunate to live in a good part of the state, and we’re fortunate to be able to hire some very high-quality teachers that a lot of school districts wouldn’t get an opportunity to hire.”
He added, “It doesn’t matter what kind of energy control system you have. What matters the most is what happens when that teacher closes that door and starts teaching kids.”
Abernathy would like to see even more improvement, however. “We want to continue improving and changing. We are very proud of where we are, but we are not done.”
He has a positive outlook concerning the next few years for the district.
“The future of Bryant schools is nothing but glowing. We have a committed staff, a committed community, a fantastic student population. I think we are going to continue to improve.”
He said he would like to see improvement in literacy and Advanced Placement scores and is interested in seeking new ways to meet administrative and faculty staffing needs.
“We’re proud of where we are, but my belief has always been, if you aren’t trying to improve in certain areas then you probably ought to go home,” he declared.
Specific changes Abernathy seeks include becoming competitive with other schools on a national level and helping teachers focus and go deeper on key parts of curriculum instead of the broad coverage currently accepted.
Abernathy is pursuing a project he believes will move the technology of the Bryant School District forward and will enhance instruction. Named T2I2 for Teachers for Technology Infused Instruction, the project involves computer systems from Apple and specific and significant training for 16 teachers in the district. He said five school districts were involved in T2I2 in Arkansas with hopefully more in the future. After writing grants and received funding, each district received $250,000 to help pay for the program.
“Technology is not the answer in education, but it is a tool and it’s a tool our kids need to be aware of and be able to use for research, writing papers, for whatever,” said Abernathy.
He stressed that technology has changed rapidly, and students will need knowledge of it for many jobs.
T2I2 will involve teachers trained and certified in the program to be set up in a classroom with computers to support it. Abernathy said the plan is to start implementing the program this year. By December, some of the teachers who attended training this past summer will have completed their certifications, and their classrooms will be ready. Students can use a computer in the classroom every day.
Abernathy said part of the agreement in the grant was for the district to serve as a kind of model.
“As we get this up and running, other teachers can come to our district and see how [our teachers] are using technology to advance student achievement,” he explained.
Abernathy also said the district was exploring the idea of a one-to-one technology program in Bryant. He said, although the district was not close to it now, it was something being considered for the future. At this time, the district has studied a few schools that have issued laptops instead of textbooks. He said they will be looking at more schools this fall and are studying reports to see if how well this new concept has worked.
All in all, Abernathy expressed an optimistic opinion of Bryant Schools and the community in which they work.
“Bryant has been recognized several times this past fall, and a lot of that is, I think people are realizing what a jewel we have here in the school and in the community, and I really think the future is bright for this area in general and certainly bright for our school district.”