News Column

With 2 years behind him, Nichols answers Decatur's questions

July 6, 2014

By Deangelo McDaniel, The Decatur Daily, Ala.

July 06--On July 1, Ed Nichols started his third year as superintendent of Decatur City Schools. After a series of community meetings, he spent a considerable time his first two years reshaping the district by adopting a five-year master plan and preparing to construct two new high schools.

To free up capital for the new high schools and support programs students want, Nichols made some controversial recommendations, such as moving the services of Horizon School to Decatur High, eliminating teaching positions and going to a two-tier bus system.

On Tuesday, Nichols responded to questions collected by The Decatur Daily from city residents, reporters and school employees.

Q: What decision do you regret most about your first two years as superintendent and why?

A: I think you always look back and reevaluate your decisions. With the changes we have made, there is always room for improvement in communication. If I could have done anything better, I would have tried harder to communicate the focus of our changes. I also would have tried to have balanced some of our new programs we started last year. Our teachers had a lot of new things at the start of last school year, such as STAR and College and Career Readiness Standards. I think it created some stress at the start of the school year. I should have tried harder to let them see what changes we were making and why we were making them.

Q: What is the No. 1 issue confronting Decatur City Schools and how do you plan to fix it?

A: Competition for students with surrounding communities based on student academic performance, facilities and programs. We have to be competitive. The PARCA (Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama) report we received last week that showed most of our students were scoring at or above grade level didn't start when I became superintendent. This work has been going on four to five years, and we have to continue to build on that. To continue to compete and improve, we have to offer programs that attract students and give those programs the support they need.

Q: If the City Council designated the penny sales tax it has traditionally given to schools, what would be different in terms of layoffs and construction?

A: Really, it would not make a change. I feel that the City Council is committed to have the education system in this community competitive with surrounding communities. We receive tremendous support from them, and I have no reason to feel it would change.

Q: A month after non-renewing 89 employees to save money, you recommended raises and the board approved them for some Central Office employees. How do you justify these moves?

A: With the restructuring of our district and staff, we will save several hundred thousand dollars. I believe that the redistribution of jobs and the small amount we paid are justified as it relates to the duties in these positions. Also, not all of the 89 positions have been permanently deleted. In the end, the cuts will total about 59, and 27 of them will be certified employees. Most of the teacher cuts came from restructuring the alternative school and moving teachers due to school choice. We have 17 school sites. When you look at the cuts, that's about one teacher per site.

Q: How have non-renewals and resignations affected the student-teacher ratios in Decatur City Schools?

A: For the most part, these cuts have not been in the classroom. Therefore, we may see a few more students in middle and high school, but not many. We have had to evaluate our classes and make sure that we do a better job of utilizing our staff between schools to address student needs. In some places, we had smaller classes so those teachers are being shared across the district. We have a Decatur High drama teacher that will spend time at Oak Park. We're going to have some International Baccalaureate classes that will be combined with AP classes like several IB schools do in the state. This will help us in class size and still allow students the option of the diploma track they would like to choose. The reality is we can't afford classes with 12 students in them and do what we need to get all our students college- or career-ready.

Q: One of the commitments you made when becoming superintendent is not to mess with programs that work. Horizon School had a very successful program that helped improve the district's graduation rate. Are there any other successful programs you are thinking about changing?

A: We are going to evaluate all programs. As for Horizon, we are still able to offer the students the same academic format in a new location. So the Horizon program will continue. In the past two years, we restructured our middle school IB program so that we now offer a broader choice of electives. This change does not stop us from using the teaching concepts of the MYP (Middle School Years Program). We just have the flexibility of letting parents and students have more choice in their education path. Moving the program to Decatur High will allow Horizon to be a school within a school. Some of the students at Horizon told me they wanted access to counselors and science labs. They can have that now because we have moved them to where the resources are.

Q: You have said you meet regularly with students. What are they telling you and how are you addressing their concerns?

A: They are very interested in more career choice options and dual enrollment. Technology is also a big issue. They know that they will face a competitive world and they want to be ready. They also would like to have options like dance, communication training and sports like lacrosse.

Q: The board will vote on an architectural firm to design the new high schools on July 14. What happens after that and when can students and residents expect to be in the new high schools?

A: Our goal right now would be to open our new facilities in the fall of 2017. Once a firm is selected, the architects will meet with students and faculty members at each school. We don't want the design phase to be a protracted process, but we have to get it right because these schools will serve our students for the next 50 years or so.

Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or Follow on Twitter @DD_Deangelo.


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