Residents pack gym to discuss future of ACS middle schools

SEEKING INPUT: About 200 community members gathered at Isaac Dickson Elementary to hear Asheville City Schools' options on how to handle shrinking enrollment and financial challenges, including the possible merger of the district's two middle schools. Photo by Greg Parlier

School employees had to fetch more chairs for the about 200 parents, students and teachers who packed into Isaac Dickson Elementary’s gymnasium on a chilly school night Jan. 18 to share their opinions on the potential merger of two Asheville middle schools.

Asheville City Schools announced in November that the district may have to co-locate or merge its two middle schools, reminding some of the controversial closure of Asheville Primary School in 2021.

“When we close schools, we lose students, and that’s true from early elementary all the way through. You can’t cut one school and expect that to be the only loss,” said parent Christina Mason when a few participants were asked for final thoughts from the meeting.

ENGAGEMENT: Asheville City Schools Superintendent Maggie Fehrman promised to “engage with all community stakeholders” when she took the job in June 2023. Her Jan. 18 listening session on the potential merger of the district’s two middle schools was one of example of her efforts. Photo by Greg Parlier

Superintendent Maggie Fehrman kicked off what she called a “listening session” by presenting the district’s options for dealing with what she has called a confluence of financial challenges in previous public meetings.

She stressed throughout the evening that the district would balance its goal of creating equitable learning environments for all students, but she acknowledged that she must balance that with a “responsible and ethical management of financial resources.”

“Sometimes what’s best for our students is smaller clusters. Sometimes what’s best for students is a neighborhood school. Sometimes what’s best for students is more expensive. And we need to make sure that we’re valuing the best programming for our students. So it’s not a ‘This is going to save the district money, we’re going to go with decision A.’ There’s lots of variables,” she said.

Options for Montford North Star Academy, which opened in 2017 on Montford Avenue to address burgeoning district enrollment at the time, include sharing space or merging with the larger Asheville Middle School at its campus on South French Broad Avenue, Fehrman said.

She also said finding a home for the Education and Career Academy, currently renting space at the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville’s Arthur R. Edington Center, is a priority. The final option is to make no changes, though she warned that might come with significant financial costs.

Shrinking enrollment

A top issue for the Asheville district and a theme for the night’s discussion was its shrinking enrollment numbers.

In 2017, the year MNSA opened, the district projected it would grow to about 4,800 students by the 2023-24 school year. Instead, the district peaked in 2016-17 with 4,620 students and has steadily shrunk since. The district currently enrolls about 3,900 students, 900 under those 2017 projections.

Meanwhile, charter school enrollment in Buncombe County has grown over the same time, up to 549 students this school year from 374 in 2016-17.

MNSA was designed as a small, innovative middle school meant to compete with area charter schools, according to Fehrman’s presentation.

SOLUTIONS: Parents, teachers and students broke into groups to brainstorm solutions and priorities Asheville City Schools should have when considering a potential merger of middle schools at the listening session Jan. 18. Photo by Greg Parlier

By many metrics, it has succeeded. Teachers say there is a waiting list for enrollment every year, and it was named a 2024 “School to Watch” by the N.C. Middle Level Educators Association.

Students at both MNSA and AMS have received high marks academically as well as several accolades for their respective bands and other extracurricular activities. And in a 2022 teacher working conditions survey, 100% of staff agree or strongly agree that MNSA is a good place to work and learn.

“There are really great things happening at both schools,” Fehrman said.

In looking for ways to save money and eliminate redundancies, the middle schools may be the lowest-hanging fruit. According to building capacity numbers released by ACS in November, the two middle schools’ facilities are both below 55% of maximum capacity, among the lowest in the district. MNSA in particular only fills about 28% of its facility, according to that dataset.

Some have said those numbers are misleading, since there is a waiting list to get into MNSA each year. Fehrman reported Jan. 18 that according to data collected by MNSA Principal Shannon Baggett, MNSA is using two-thirds of its potential classrooms for core general education academics. Similarly, AMS is using 69% of its potential classrooms, she said.

It’s unclear why MNSA does not accept more students to fill its buildings. District staff were not available by deadline Jan. 19 to respond to questions.

More detailed numbers are coming soon from the enrollment and capacity study the board commissioned at the end of last year, Fehrman said during the meeting.

Breakout sessions

After Fehrman’s presentation, attendees broke into 11 groups of roughly 15 members to discuss a series of prompted questions and jot down thoughts and ideas on an easel. There were also large pieces of paper hung on walls around the gym, marked as “bike racks” for those in attendance to write down questions for the district or note data points they would like to see to help inform decisions on the middle schools.

SAVE MONTFORD: Students at Montford North Star Academy made their voices heard at the Jan. 18 listening session, arguing that their middle school is special in part because of its relatively small student body compared to Asheville Middle School. Photo courtesy of Christina Mason

A common suggestion from attendees was to consider opening enrollment in district schools to those who live outside district lines.

Another suggested the district move central office operations to the MNSA campus and sell headquarters to help solve its financial shortcomings.

District staff will compile all the ideas people wrote down during the meeting and post them on the website, Fehrman said. She plans to hold several more input-gathering meetings to inform a future board decision on the topic, she said.

Despite palpable frustrations and fear about the future of the district throughout the small group discussions, there was appreciation for the first-year superintendent’s engagement efforts as well.

“We finally have the superintendent we’ve always needed,” one teacher remarked to a round of applause when asked for her takeaways from the event.

The final comment of the night from a student summed up the feelings in the district about MNSA.

“Montford is not broken. Don’t fix it,” she said.

(This story has been updated to correctly reflect the name of Montford North Star Academy Principal Shannon Baggett. Our sincere apologies for the misrepresentation.)


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One thought on “Residents pack gym to discuss future of ACS middle schools

  1. John Brigham

    This is a direct quote from the above article: “She (Dr. Fehrman)also said finding a home for the Education and Career Academy, current ….. ” etc. . I go to the ACS web site and do a search “Education and Career Academy”. I find zero references.

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