Schools plan going to board

Many in Durham hope an old building will be revitalized and used for a magnet program

Staff WriterNovember 7, 2006 

— Next week, the Durham school board will finalize a long-range plan to build more schools and patch the old ones.

Many parents hope that list includes turning the old W.G. Pearson Elementary into a new middle school for their children as early as next fall.

Parents also urged school board members Monday to turn the old Pearson, an 80-year-old building on Umstead Street, into a magnet program.

The program ideally would serve as a continuation of magnet programs for students currently at Club Boulevard and R.N. Harris elementaries, as well as the new W.G. Pearson school, which opened this year. The new middle school program would be open to about 350 students, starting with a class of 150 children next fall, if the district can find the money and support of the board.

The demand for another middle school with a magnet program is undeniable, according to both parents and administrators.

Currently, students enrolled at Durham's six elementary magnet schools have two magnet middle-grades programs to choose from -- Durham School of the Arts and Shepard International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Magnet School.

Both schools are competitive and space is limited. When a student doesn't win a spot at the school of his or her choice, parents often are forced to turn elsewhere, said Natalie Beyer, a parent of three Club Boulevard students.

"We lose a lot of families to charter schools and private schools at sixth grade," she said.

In order to turn the old Pearson school into a building that could accommodate a small program for sixth through eighth grades, the district would have to spend at least $3.5 million to clear up cosmetic issues, according to initial estimates. But compared with a new school, the cost is minimal.

"You compare this to building a new middle school, buying the land," board member Steve Schewel said. "This is inexpensive space."

If the school board decides to push the school for next year, it would be difficult to find the money and meet the deadline, said Hugh Osteen, assistant superintendent for operations.

"Whatever modest changes we can make to a facility like that, it's still a handful to turn around by August 2007," Osteen said.

Still, the possibility of a magnet middle linked to Club Boulevard, R.N. Harris and the new Pearson school is worth more than a few cosmetic considerations, Beyer said.

"The location and the condition of the facility is not what's important," she said. "It's the program that you put inside, and the people."

The school board will vote Nov. 16 on the long-range facilities plan, including a timeline for fixing the old Pearson school.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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