Deborah Bolden was hired just prior to the beginning of last year’s school term and tasked with re-establishing a culture of learning at Escambia County Middle School. One year into that effort, the Atmore native finds herself facing a new obstacle – a controversial influx of local fourth-graders who are being relocated to ECMS after the closing of A.C. Moore Elementary School.
Bolden, who earned national acclaim for her work with high-poverty schools in Mobile, now has to deal with ensuring the safety of the young students while also making them feel welcome in their new learning environment. And she has to do so even in the face of some public displeasure at the move, mostly from those who fear that merging the younger students with those who are one or two years away from high school could be disastrous.
“Our administration and staff welcome the fourth-graders here,” Bolden said. “We’re going to do all we can to separate them and still include them as part of the school. They will take part in pep rallies and assemblies so that they will know they are part of this school.”
The ECMS principal said several measures have been taken to make sure that the new students remain around other elementary students.
“They will be in a part of the building that is separate from everyone else, especially the older students,” Bolden explained. “Their classrooms will be next door to the assistant principal’s office. The two two-team classrooms will be across from each other, and the self-contained fourth-grade classroom will be directly across the hall from the self-contained fifth-grade unit. Fourth, fifth and sixth grades are in the same wing, but the sixth-graders are at the very back end of the wing.
“The way the schedules are set, unless a fourth-grader is in the hall and the sixth grade is going to lunch, there is no way they can come into contact unless it’s intentional.”
The only regular direct contact with students other than fifth-graders will come when students are in the cafeteria together during the district-wide breakfast period.
“There is only one window for breakfast, and that’s district-wide,” Bolden said. “After the fourth-graders eat, they will remain in the cafeteria. The rest of the students will go sit in the gym when they finish eating breakfast. The fourth-graders will eat lunch with the fifth grade and take their break with the fifth grade, but they will go to (physical education period) as a grade level.”
Also, during this year’s transitional period the school’s youngest students will continue to wear the navy blue shirts they wore at A.C. Moore. The other ECMS students will wear either green or white shirts, allowing teachers and administrators to immediately identify those who might stray into areas in which they don’t belong.
Bolden said that despite the opposition to the move, there is a growing number of people who are pleased with the change that has occurred over the past year in the school’s culture.
“Some people are beginning to speak more positively about the school,” she said. “I am proud of how far we’ve come in one year.”
She pointed out some teaching assignments have been altered and some classrooms switched in order to allow for one self-contained fourth-grade classroom and two classrooms that are manned by teams of two teachers each.
“I think it’s important that people know that our faculty and staff are really excited about having the fourth-graders here,” she said. “They have gladly moved out of their classrooms to accommodate the staff of A.C. Moore. We have the hardest-working staff in the district, and they smile as they work.”
Bolden added that the biggest stumbling block to the successful relocation of the ACM youngsters is a negative perception that has been fueled mostly by those who have little or no knowledge of the new atmosphere that prevails at Escambia Middle.
“A negative perception has been spread about this school and it’s still being spread,” she said. “Most of the people who spread that perception are people who have never been inside this school and by those who don’t even have students in the public school system.
“If they want to criticize this school, they need to come here and walk this building. We don’t tolerate misbehavior. We care about our students and each other. We have the hardest working staff in the district and they do a great job functioning as collaborative teams.”