Community fights to keep school open

WESTFIELD — Representatives from the Francisco community met with members of the county school administration Monday to outline possible ways of keeping Francisco Elementary School open in future years.

Skip Roughton, who served as a spokesman for the Francisco community group, said the community understood the financial hardships involved with keeping the school open, but argued that it was a key piece to the growth in the community.

“We are not asking to keep it open forever, we are just asking to keep it open for one more year,” he said. “That will give us a chance to start working on some of the options that we think will work.”

He presented the school administration a list of possible actions that could be taken to improve the school and its chances of long-term success.

Those recommendations include designating a key school system contact who would have authority to facilitate and expedite community volunteer projects such as landscaping, building repair, power-washing and interior painting.

“We would like to improve the curb appeal of the school,” he said. “The school has been allowed to deteriorate. That message has been clear to the community, but this school is worth resuscitating.”

Roughton suggested that the school system may want to consider a “school within a school” system for Francisco under which the school could share a part-time principal or assistant principal or lead teacher that would report to the principal of Lawsonville Elementary School. Under that proposal Roughton recommended that the system use the savings it would offer to support teacher teams that could enable small group separation by grade level or age group.

He also recommended using volunteer tutors from the community to provide support for the full-time staff at the school

Other recommendations included using the facility for fee-based community services like adult education classes, sponsored concerts or dances and community theater; partnering with the community to search for and apply for funding for special projects at the school like playground modernization, community food pantries and computer tech in the classroom; and establishing a parent/community team to communicate needs and enlist community support.

Roughton also suggested leasing unused space in the school to the YMCA or a community college to bring in more resources for the community and to provide full-day and after-school child-care services.

“There is a lot of unused space in that school as there is in other schools,” he said. “There is a daycare center that a lot of our parents use in Pilot, but if we had something locally set up, that would be wonderful.”

Josh Francis, a Francisco area resident who recently had a daughter whom he hopes will eventually be able to attend Francisco Elementary School, said the community wanted better communication moving forward.

“We are just looking for leadership to help us out,” he said. “I know what the potential of the school is and I know you guys want to do what is best. The bad thing is there are parents who are jumping ship. There are going to be future parents who are debating whether to send their kids to Surry County because there are bad feelings. It is going to affect a bunch of people not only in our community but throughout the county.”

Texie Jessup provided a brief history of the school, noting it was an anchor of the community.

“It unifies residents of all backgrounds,” she said, saying the school was used for a variety of community sports and aerobics classes. “We believe we have the best that Stokes County can offer and we cannot allow our children to lose this.”

Bobby Shelton, a parent who has sent two students through Francisco Elementary School and has a son attending there, questioned the fairness of moving students to another school.

“What is to become of my kid?” he asked. “I feel like he is going to be stripped of his identity and sent to a strange place filled with strange people. He is going to become an instant outcast. Transportation is also going to be a big issue for a lot of people in our area. The after-school where they send them, a lot of parents will not be able to take advantage of because of the distance. A lot of kids will miss out on what the other schools can provide the local kids.”

He said closing the school would be a nail in the coffin of the Francisco community.

“It is the death of the community is what it basically is,”said Shelton.

Nick Watson, who moved to the community with his wife four years ago, said he had purchased a home in the Francisco community because of its proximity to a small community school.

He said he had recently gotten involved with the group working to improve the community and noted that they had a number of ideas to help the school but needed more time to achieve those goals.

“We have clear and concise action items that will create a model for the rest of the county,” he said.

The school board will continue its discussion on the fate of Francisco Elementary School on Monday at 6 p.m. at the school board offices in Danbury.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

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