The bottom line is this -- it's all about the students learning more. And when [teacher/student] ratios are smaller, they learn more," says Commodore Primus. Primus is the principal for the new Robert R. Church Elementary School, one of nine new city schools being opened this fall.
The state of Tennessee's revised requirements for smaller class sizes gave Memphis City Schools few options other than building new schools. The subsequent simultaneous construction of nine schools during the past 14 months is considered the largest such construction project in Memphis history. The schools will help reduce overcrowding at a number of locations and offer 7,200 students modern facilities. Class-size ratio will be reduced to 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade and 25 students per teacher in fourth through sixth grade.
The new schools, Robert R. Church Elementary, Holmes Road Elementary, Getwell Elementary, Craigmont Middle School, Germanshire Elementary, Hickory Ridge Elementary, Hickory Ridge Middle School, Ridgeway Middle School, and Winridge Elementary, will open for the first day of school on August 20th.
Primus says it's like getting in a brand-new car. The smell of fresh paint is ever-present. Office administrators are busy opening packages of pens, tape dispensers, staplers, and other new office supplies. The crystal-clear windows and spotless floors are a sure sign that students have yet to make their way through the doors. It is only a matter of time before classrooms are filled with busy students and artwork hangs in the hallways.
Memphis City Schools officials strive for equity throughout the city so that each student can receive equal instruction no matter which school he or she attends. But the new schools will be better able to incorporate planned future programs, including Early Childhood Learning for 3- and 4-year-olds and Special Education.
Early Childhood will teach preschool children to interact with others and will prepare them for the next level. The Special Education program will be geared toward students with disabilities, emphasizing one-on-one contact with teachers.
Other additions to the standard school structure will include science labs, computer labs, library research rooms, and special project centers. Other additions have been implemented to advance hands-on education.
Each school has been designed by different architects, giving them a unique look and feel. Getwell Elementary labels each hall with a different hue of the rainbow to help young students find their way around the school. Robert R. Church Elementary -- named after an early African-American millionaire -- has each wing named after a member of Church's family.
All of the new schools feature outdoor courtyards separate from the playground area. The courtyards will contain various learning tools, such as a large compass.
"We are not using the courtyard as a playground but as an outdoor learning center where students can perform science experiments and display different projects," Primus says. "The windows to the courtyard will give other students insight into what their peers are involved in. In other words, it will be the centerpiece of our school."
Although most decisions on the use of space were focused on children, teachers and parents will also receive some perks with the new schools. Near the guidance wing of the elementary schools, parents on the PTA board and other organized school committees will be able to meet in the "parents' room." Teachers in each grade are given planning rooms separate from teachers' lounges to allow for quiet and convenient planning periods.
Each classroom will contain five computers, an overhead projector, and a multimedia screen as additional in-class learning tools.
"It is vital now that students learn to use these tools in and out of the classroom," Getwell Elementary principal Terry Ross says. "We must start from the bottom and build a foundation for the children we educate."
In addition to the city schools, Shelby County's new Lakeland Elementary School will open its doors to 650 students this fall.
"We have no other choice than to build schools when we have significant enrollment increases and class reduction laws," Shelby County Schools spokesperson Mike Tebby says.
As the first day of school approaches, workers look for any last-minute touch-ups that will help opening day run as smoothly as possible. Ross says it's just a matter of getting the books on the shelves and the equipment in place.
The new buildings offer new hope -- but also new challenges.
"We are excited about the children coming to learn," Primus says. "We believe that new facilities heavily impact the children's learning. They seem to eliminate barriers. With a new building, we have no excuse."