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LISTENING SESSION: Superintendent Grenita Lathan answers questions from some 120 community members who gathered a public meeting at Pershing School on Jan. 8.
Karen Craigo | SBJ
LISTENING SESSION: Superintendent Grenita Lathan answers questions from some 120 community members who gathered a public meeting at Pershing School on Jan. 8.

SPS to vote on closing Robberson, Pershing

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The future of two schools is expected to be decided by the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education on Jan. 16.

A public hearing and vote on whether to close Robberson Community School was to have been held in a special meeting Jan. 9, but it was rescheduled because of weather conditions to 4 p.m. Jan. 16.

The fate of the K-5 elementary section of Pershing School, a K-8 facility, will be decided the same night at 5:30 p.m.

The regular board meeting will follow, with all events in the Kraft Administrative Center, according to board secretary Tammi Harrington.

Recommendations for closure came out of a $79,000 study prepared by Davis Demographics, a division of Tampa, Florida-based MGT of America Consulting LLC. 

The consultant offered four possibilities for Robberson. Two models involved closure, with students either being divided between Bowerman and Fremont elementaries or all going to Boyd Elementary, and two were expansion models, with a new school built to the east or north.

At its Dec. 19 meeting, district officials settled on its recommendation: to close Robberson and move students to Boyd.

For Pershing, the district’s recommendation is to remove the elementary school, serving students in K-5, from the building, leaving it to serve middle school students in grades 6-8 only.

The study included three options for sending Pershing students to other schools, and the district’s recommendation is to divide them between Field and Wilder elementaries. The rejected suggestions were to send them all to Pittman Elementary or to send them to Wilder, with a portion of existing Wilder students reassigned to Sequiota Elementary.

Some 120 community members attended a meeting Jan. 8 at Pershing to ask questions about the proposed closure.

District officials, led by Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Deputy Superintendent of Operations Travis Shaw, were on hand to provide answers. Also present were the principals of the two schools where Pershing students will be admitted if its K-5 section closes: Field Elementary Principal Janell Bagwell and Wilder Elementary Principal Adam Bax. 

“We do a lot of collaboration – I think that’s one of the benefits of the larger buildings,” Bax said. “You have opportunities for grade-level-alike teams to be able to collaborate and work together.”

He noted each grade level at Wilder now has three sections, allowing teachers to share ideas and work together. A Pershing kindergarten teacher who spoke up at the meeting noted she is the only one in her grade level in the building.

Bagwell’s remarks focused in part on the unique culture of each school.

“I think there would have to be some intentional thought behind, you know, what are some of those traditions and things that your families are holding onto that we need to merge together to create the new community that it would be moving forward,” she said. “We would have to work together to create what that future would look like.”

Most impact for money
The demographic study pointed out three SPS elementary schools, Boyd, Robberson and Weaver, that are operating below 60% enrollment capacity with further declines projected. Robberson’s capacity of 343 in grades K-5 is operating at 49%, with a forecast usage of 37% in 2028.

Lathan said class sizes on SPS campuses range from 12 to 26 students, and the district is concerned with right-sizing its classes. Four additional classrooms would be added to Field and Wilder elementaries before Pershing students made their move.

Shaw said $50 million has been devoted in the bond issue to Pershing. If the board votes to relocate its elementary students, there will be about a $4 million expenditure to add permanent classrooms to Wilder and Field. He added that of the $50 million allocated for Pershing, about $40 million would be designated for construction, not including architectural, engineering, consulting and other expenses.

If the building remains a K-8 facility, the $40 million for construction will have to spread out over nine grades.

“The utilization, the efficiency, all those things we talk about, we can get more bang for our buck, within a budget, to be able to really have the most impact on this campus when we really are able to focus on the 6-8 part of this,” Shaw said.

He added that some of the things the money would have to be spent on if Pershing were to remain K-8, such as storm shelters and ancillary spaces like cafeterias and gyms, are already in place at Field and Wilder.

Families react
Similar conversations to those at the Pershing meeting were held at a Jan. 4 community meeting at Robberson. If closure is approved, students in grades pre-K through 5 would be assigned to the two-year-old Boyd Elementary, located less than 1.5 miles away. Boyd’s capacity is 343 but only 148 attend, according to the demographic study.

Robberson operates as a community school that is open year-round to serve north-side residents.

In a public Facebook post written after the meeting, Dani Price called the potential closure of Robberson sad and frustrating.

“If Robberson is going to close the whole neighborhood is going to go downhill and the students aren’t going to get the education they need,” she posted.

Price added that she is a substitute teacher who fears the board is going to make a very bad decision.

“They need to keep Robberson open, change the district lines, spread the students out so they can have a better education and use this school to help the community,” she wrote. “There are so many different things that they can do with Robberson and keep it open so these north side kids have a chance.”

Pershing parent Jeff Houghton said he would like his three children’s school to remain K-8 because it’s small and walkable, does well academically and is well attended.

“What we see living in the neighborhood is more families moving in and more older folks moving out,” he said. “The neighborhood trends toward growth in that regard.”

He said he doesn’t know what to expect from the board.

“It’s kind of my first engagement in this way,” he said. “I certainly think they have a lot to consider in a lot of different ways, but I hope they’ll be open-minded in the home stretch here.”

Parent concerns expressed at the meetings included the loss of walkability for students, but Lathan said all students who will have to move to another school would be provided bus transportation. Since November 2021 – after the start of the school year – the district has used a three-tiered system of school start times to contend with a lack of bus drivers.

Other concerns are specific to the schools facing closure. Some Pershing parents spoke of the advantages of the K-8 model they would be losing, and some Robberson parents expressed concern about the loss of the school’s unique community programming, including year-round school.

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