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Photo by Frank Couch.
Painting and other improvements are underway at Homewood High School over the summer. The school system is looking at options to accommodate a growing student body.
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Kindergarten classrooms have been getting fuller in Homewood City Schools for the past four years. With no sign of decreasing enrollment, Superintendent Bill Cleveland knows these kindergarten kids are going to cause a ripple effect as they get older, all the way up to Homewood High School.
“In Homewood City Schools, there’s always been some growth, but really [in] the last four years, it’s been more so than what we’ve experienced before,” he said.
Since the 2012-13 school year, Homewood City Schools has added 405 students across its elementary, middle and high schools. In 2013-14, the school system experienced its first triple digit growth since 2005-06, adding 169 students in a single year. The growth from 2013 to 2015, Cleveland said, “kind of took my breath away.”
A lot of this growth is noticeable in the youngest Homewood students, he said.
Homewood’s kindergartens surpassed 300 students for the first time in 2009-10. In the past four school years, Homewood has had an average of 338 kindergarten students per year, and the rest of the elementary classes have increased as well.
Growth patterns are less predictable in the middle and high school right now, but Cleveland said the consistent increase in younger students means more people are choosing to stay in Homewood to raise their families.
“It’s a very healthy thing for a community. People want to be here. They’re choosing not to leave,” he said.
Based on current projections, Homewood High School will have about 1,300 students when the class of 2023 — currently rising sixth-graders — graduates. There were about 1,130 students at Homewood High at the end of last school year.
“When you start getting up to that many, that’s going to be tough to handle,” Cleveland said.
That means now is the best time for the school system to make plans for these new students.
Cleveland said Homewood City Schools began working in January with B.L. Harbert International to complete a physical study of all five school buildings. Harbert Vice President Charlie Vick said a date has not been set for completion of the study, but Cleveland anticipates having results sometime this fall.
Harbert was chosen because Homewood Parks and Recreation is working with the same firm to respond to increases in recreation program participants. Parks and Recreation Superintendent Rusty Holley said Harbert is looking specifically at the athletic field layout at West Homewood Park for ways to accommodate more people.
In the last two years, Holley said, the department has had to cut off registration for some of the younger baseball teams, and there are more than 500 baseball players total. Likewise, youth basketball has grown from 200 participants in 2011 to more than 500 last season. Newer athletic teams such as lacrosse and flag football also have seen expanding rosters.
The growth in Parks and Recreation youth programs involvement is a symptom of the same problem facing the schools: There’s simply more kids in Homewood.
Studying school capacity in Homewood requires a lot more than counting classroom desks, especially at the high school level. Cleveland said Harbert employees are also looking at parking, staff needs and what space is available for growth in athletic teams, band, show choir and other extracurricular activities. Even the cafeteria and kitchen space has to be evaluated to handle anticipated growth.
Cleveland said Harbert is working with architectural experts and the people who use Homewood City Schools every day.
“In order to do this, especially at the high school, the architects and the people at Harbert that are doing this, they’re not necessarily meeting with me. They’re meeting with the people in charge of these programs and some other folks. In some cases, they’ve talked to some of the students,” he said.
The study, once complete, should provide insight on “questions I don’t have the answer to,” Cleveland said. Principally, that means establishing how many students each school can handle, and what options, such as expansion or new school construction, are on the table once that limit is reached.
The full details of those options won’t be available until Harbert’s study is complete, but Cleveland said a few things are already known. For instance, Cleveland said, expansion will be limited at Homewood High, with the steep hill on one side and a flood plain on the other. He added that the athletic fields in front of the school fall into 100- and 500-year flood zones. None of this rules out adding on to the facility, but it will mean extra precautions and, likely, expenses.
“I don’t know really how one adds on there, but Harbert will,” Cleveland said. “What I do know for a fact is there are many challenges with that site.”
Cleveland said he has heard from residents asking if Homewood is going to build a brand-new high school, but he said the school board doesn’t have the information they need yet for such a significant decision.
“I’m not in a position to say we are or are not [building a new school],” he said. “It kind of puts you in a funny position because we really just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In regards to growth at the elementary level, Cleveland said more details are also needed. However, he’s in favor of expanding current schools rather than adding a fourth one, as he said he likes the community ties Edgewood, Hall-Kent and Shades Cahaba have.
In addition, a fourth school would add construction costs and the ongoing expense of new teaching faculty and staff to run the school.
“I’m not in a position to say that would never happen right now. It would really have to be something drastic for that to happen specifically because it brings reoccurring costs, costs that we’re not experiencing now and costs that I don’t see a source of funds for those from the state level,” Cleveland said.
More information will become available to the public once the Harbert study is complete and the school board begins considering its options. Cleveland said the school system is at work on its next five-year strategic plan, and facility changes will likely be a significant portion of that plan.
While the future physical appearance of Homewood City Schools is likely to change, Cleveland said he sees this growth as a sign that Homewood schools are doing something right, and other people are paying attention.
“A challenge can be positive or a challenge can be negative. We view this challenge as a very positive challenge,” Cleveland said.