With enrollment in two of Alcoa’s four schools already over capacity, Director Becky Stone is looking forward to preliminary results next month from a City of Alcoa growth study to move ahead with planning.
Since May 2016, Alcoa City Schools enrollment of residential students has increased by 356, while it cut the number of tuition students by 83. School officials are being more stringent about checking proof of students’ residency, and they are turning away some families willing to pay tuition, even when a sibling already is in an Alcoa school.
School board members discussed the pressure of residential enrollment growth during recent work sessions.
“I don’t see with the number of kids coming in how we can continue to go on,” board member Jim Kirk said on Aug. 15.
Later that week plans were announced for a new 450-unit residential development at Pellissippi Place, a project that brings to 1,700 the number of residences known to be in the planning or building stage within Alcoa. Alcoa City Schools Director Becky Stone she had no idea about Pellissippi Place before then.
“Development is great. I love what is growing around our building,” Stone said during a Sept. 15 interview at her office in the ACS Educator Support Center. “But at the same time, the smallness is what has made us Alcoa for so long.”
Beyond that, her concern is enrollment growth outpacing the district’s ability to build to keep up with it. “You don’t plan and build schools overnight,” she said.
The Alcoa Board of Education began planning for an expansion of Alcoa Intermediate School in 2017, but the project was delayed and split into two phases because of funding limits from the city. The $17.3 million Phase I started construction last year and is scheduled to be complete in the spring, but no timeline has been set for moving forward beyond that.
The City of Alcoa currently is conducting a growth study, with preliminary numbers expected next month. “We really want to see where those numbers come in and where they’re going to put us,” Stone said.
Beyond Phase II at AIS, she’s looking at whether ACS will need to realign which grades are in which buildings, and whether they need another addition or another school. “The bottom line is we have to have money to do any of it,” she said.
ACS says AIS has a capacity of 445 students and current enrollment of 476. Alcoa Elementary has a capacity of 540 and enrollment of 552.
Stone told the school board at its August work session, “We’re going to have to have an elementary school,” splitting grades between the existing building and a new one.
Stone told the school board in August that ACS was requiring proof of residency for all students, and principals were making home visits to those who had not responded.
“We’ve been very, very diligent, the principals have, on getting those proof of residence this year, even if they’re enrolled in the ninth grade and they’ve been with us since preK,” Stone told the board.
This month the school board voted to revise its policy for accepting nonresident students to give priority to children of teachers over other school employees.
The policy previously gave top priority to the children of any ACS employee, and Stone said people were coming to work for one day a week in the cafeteria, just about two hours, and receiving that benefit with half-price tuition.
Under the policy the board passed on the first reading Sept. 13, the order of priority for accepting nonresident students will be children of ACS teachers, children of other ACS employees, children with siblings currently in the system, children of City of Alcoa employees and children of Alcoa property owners who are nonresidents before anyone else.
The new policy also adds, “Nonresident student attendance, academic records, and behavior will be reviewed annually to determine readmission for the following school year.”
With attendance so tight, Stone told the board at its Sept. 12 work session, “We’ve requested that every school look at every tuition student every year.”
The Alcoa school board also plans to look at raising its tuition rate, making a decision before the new calendar year to take effect in the next school year.
Board member Brandy Bledsoe noted the value to ACS of nonresident students beyond tuition, saying at the September work session, “Typically that’s your higher test scores.”
Stone explained that because most of the nonresident students are the children of school or city employees, they pay only $500 a year, half the current tuition rate.
While one in five ACS students in May 2016 was a nonresident, that has falled to about 14% this year. More than half of the 325 tuition students are at the high school.
Culture v. capacity
Even where Alcoa City Schools has capacity in its buildings, some school board members question whether they want to grow that much.
The new Alcoa High School, which opened in 2015, has a current enrollment of 715, with an estimated capacity of 1,000 and a design that would allow additions.
“We’d always said we never wanted to get over 700 at the high school,” said Stone, who was principal there before becoming director of schools. To fit 1,000 students would require 35 in a classroom and teachers sharing rooms.
“If you put a thousand in there it’s going to be an Alcoa like you’ve never seen,” Stone said at the school board’s August work session.
“It’s not Alcoa anymore,” said school board member Mike Brown, who previously taught at AHS.
“The beauty of Alcoa was the smallness,” said Kirk, who was principal at Alcoa Middle School before his retirement. “We’re going to be right up there with Heritage and William Blount, over 1,000 students,” he said, referring to the Blount County Schools high schools.
Referring at that August meeting to Alcoa’s plan to annex land proposed for development off Wildwood Road, Kirk asked the ACS director, “Have we thought about asking for deannexation of some areas?”
“Any time we’ve brought it up before — and we’ve brought it up before — it falls on deaf ears,” Stone said of her discussions with city officials.