Students, teachers, parents mourn loss of exemplary school

‘What goes on here is too great to let it die’ – Students, teachers, parents mourn loss of exemplary school

 Dallas Morning News, The (TX) – May 29, 2004

Author: JENNIFER EMILY, Staff Writer

Every day, Lisa Full has prayer-walked around her children’s school. Each day her plea has been the same: God, do not let ACT Academy close.

But Friday, her three children attended their final day at the McKinney school. For Ms. Full and other parents, it was a day of tearful goodbyes and questions about why an exemplary school would be shut down.

“We want to share with everyone what the school was. It’s a proven educational success,” said parent Leah Holdridge. “We want this kind of learning to continue. What goes on here is too great to let it die.”

The McKinney school board voted in March to close the 11-year-old school because of budget cuts.

The kindergarten through grade 12 school began in 1993 with a $5.5 million federal grant and a philosophy of hands-on learning, encouraging education through public service and technology. Older students went on frequent field trips and worked in the classroom with younger pupils.

Any student in the district could apply to the public school, but it had room for only 250 children. For some grade levels, there was a waiting list.

The school was one of nine exemplary schools in the 22-campus district. The Texas Education Agency reports that exemplary schools have been closed before but normally because of declining attendance. There are no statistics about how many have been closed and why.

School Superintendent David Anthony said decreasing state funds, the district’s being at the state tax cap and increased enrollment mean the district must make cuts. ACT’s closure is a casualty of needing to cut $4.8 million. That number is up from $3.4 million in earlier projected cuts.

“It is very sad, probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to be a part of in my 30 years as an educator,” Dr. Anthony said. “What’s not to like … It’s the ideal, if you can afford it. We can’t.”

The closing will save the district $1.2 million, he said Friday.

Privacy on last day

The school district would not allow reporters inside the school Friday despite numerous parents inviting them inside to watch the school’s town hall – a mix of talent show and ceremony.

School district spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said this week the decision was made “to respect the students’ privacy and allow them to enjoy the last few days of school at ACT.”

She did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

For the students, no matter how funny or joyous the songs or skits, their last day of school carried undertones of sadness. Next year some will attend other schools in the district. Many parents say they’ll home-school their children.

“It was pretty bad,” said fourth-grader Kevin Burdick, 10, about the closure. “We won’t get to learn the same way or see our friends.”

Many parents said they are intent on keeping the spirit of the magnet-style school alive. They hope to create a charter school and are planning monthly public service events for former students.

“You may have taken away our school, but I don’t think ACT is gone,” said Ms. Full, whose children just finished the first, fourth and seventh grades. “It’s still here.”

ACT parents offered to collectively pay $60,000 to keep the school open. They said the district could do away with busing the children to school and cut back on cafeteria food.

Dr. Anthony said their financial contribution wasn’t feasible because the money would only cover the costs to educate the ACT students. Moving the ACT teachers to other schools also is expected to help in the district’s savings.

Parents say ACT could have remained open if the district was more supportive.

“It was just a done deal,” Ms. Holdridge said, adding the district showed “a lack of support financially and otherwise.”

Before Priority One

The school board voted to close the school before a community committee called Priority One put together a list of recommended budget cuts earlier this month.

Parents at ACT asked the school board for a decision earlier so their children could have more educational options in the fall.

That was a request parents say they regret.

“Had we waited to go to Priority One, maybe the school would have stayed open … instead of handing the school over on a silver platter,” said Terri Battleson, the mother of an ACT kindergartner and fourth-grader.

Parents continue to contact school board members, administrators, the governor’s office and legislators asking for help.

But Friday, ACT parents said they wanted the last day of school to be about their children and their love for the school.

Many children wore ACT T-shirts that classmates and teachers signed with myriad colors.

Kevin and his sister Amanda, 7, said their T-shirts will find a place of honor in their memory boxes, clear plastic tubs of mementos.

Students who had attended other schools said ACT should be duplicated. Several children said they most enjoyed cross-age learning, which sent second- and seventh-graders on a trip to NASA or had 10th- and fourth-graders working on science experiments together.

“It was the first time I felt challenged,” said Stuart Aslett, who will attend McKinney High School as a senior and take Collin County Community College courses next year. “They encourage you to accept responsibility and think outside of the box.”

 

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