Solving problems facing students and educators at Harper Elementary go beyond the possibility of physically moving 525 kindergarten and first graders from the existing building to another location.
That’s the message a group of concerned Harper supporters heard Wednesday from Dr. Dan Rawls, Webster Parish superintendent of schools. Some of those attending the meeting will be members of a committee tasked with finding a solution to problems at the school.
“There’s a lot of things we’re going to look at, not just physically moving students and changing buildings,” Rawls said. “We’re going to look very carefully at how this is going to impact instruction.”
Rawls said maintenance on the older schools “…is astronomical. It’s very tough when you try to make modern capacity fit an old, old building. And, we’re not dealing with adults. These are little bitty people. We have to keep in mind the big picture, classroom instruction and health and safety issues.”
At the top of a list of concerns regarding Harper Elementary, prepared by the principal Janene Ashley and her staff, is the noise level in classrooms that were originally designed for an open concept. When the school was built in 1970 to house students in grades K through 5, the building had no walls or doors separating classrooms.
Walls that do not connect with the ceiling have been added, creating a cubicle effect. Rawls said that did nothing to help the learning environment in the school.
“The noise level in the school is unbelievable,” he said. “Teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn in this environment.”
Another concern is a serious shortage of restroom space for the students, Rawls said.
“We have to address the bathroom issue,” he said. “We can’t get more than two in a bathroom at the same time, some only one at a time. These little fellers are lined up and have to wait in line. And when they say they have to go now, they mean now and not in a few minutes.”
Rawls said another meeting is being planned and the people who can answer many questions about the situations at Harper will be invited to attend.
“We will have a meeting with the professionals…architects, engineers, the fire marshal who can do a walk through and tell us what needs to be done and how much it will cost,” he said. “We will then get in a room with all this information, throw it on the table and see what we come out with.”
Harper parent and volunteer Becky Tidwell said she was at the school every day and saw first-hand the problems facing students and staff.
“I’ve seen children wet their pants while standing in line waiting for a bathroom and I worry about the kids on those dangerous stairs,” she said. “I wonder if there is a building available that can handle this many kids that has actual walls and doors where teachers can teach without other students hearing.”
As the meeting began, school board member Ronnie Broughton said the committee and school system staff “…need to be sure we’re having a well thought-out plan and not a knee-jerk reaction. In my opinion, there was no thought in putting kindergarten students here. We need to do better.”
Broughton said an important part of putting a plan together that would please educators, students and parents is incorporating stakeholders in studying solutions to the problems faced at Harper.
“The best thing you have done is make us aware of how bad the problem is,” said Robert Holloway, the school board member who represents the area in which Harper Elementary is located. “Together, we can work on it and on how to solve it.”
But, Holloway reminded the group, a major obstacle must be considered while studying the issues facing the school’s future.
“We don’t want the problems to linger, but the main thing with us is money. That’s what limits us right now. I don’t know if we can pass a bond issue in this economic time, so we have to think outside and inside the box. We want ideas from everybody,” he said.