In the middle of a discussion that could result in Orange Beach leaving the school system, Baldwin County schools superintendent Alan Lee has endorsed an idea to build a one-of-a-kind high school in Gulf Shores. But the plan does not have the backing of Orange Beach’s mayor, who feels it may just be an effort to hinder his city’s attempts to break away.
Lee gave his approval to a plan Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft announced last week, which aims to pair a new high school facility with community and four-year colleges on a single piece of city property.
Craft said Gulf Shores has no intention of breaking away from Baldwin County Schools, but is instead partnering with the system to address overcrowding.
“The elementary school is very overcrowded and both the middle and high schools are nearly full,” Craft said. “We’ve anticipated the board is going to have to build another school of some type to handle that growth.”
According to Baldwin County system, the Gulf Shores feeder pattern has seen a 49 percent increase in enrollment during the last decade. Craft said the elementary school is currently using portable classrooms and is expecting to add more next year.
The city has already purchased 40 acres of land at the corner of County Road 8 and the Foley Beach Express, which is where the proposed facility will be located if all goes according to plan.
Craft said the land already acquired was a gift to the city, but Gulf Shores now has the option of purchasing the surrounding 160 acres over the next 60 days, as part of a 90-day purchasing option.
Officials can also pay to extend the option period for an additional 90 days, but Craft said the clock is ticking.
“We don’t know how much land we’ll need, but we’re working on a conceptual plan,” he said. “We want to create interested partners and see how we can provide a better educational campus for our students.”
Craft said Faulkner University, Baldwin County Schools and the University of Alabama have expressed interest in the opportunity, but that level of interest has yet to be defined. However, no one is really sure how a campus housing high school and college students would look.
“We’re not that far into the planning process and it’s really too early to give a definitive answer as to how the school would operate,” Craft said. “But these kinds of programs are already being offered between high schools and community colleges.”
The curriculum wouldn’t be any different from other high schools, but the partnerships with various universities could greatly expand the dual enrollment options offered to Baldwin County students.
Dual enrollment courses give students the option to pay for and earn college credit while still enrolled in high school.
“Most schools in the state (offer dual enrollment courses) in existing high schools or at a (partnering) community college,” said Alabama State Department of Education spokesperson Malissa Valdez-Hubert. “This is the first new facility we have heard of being built for this purpose.”
Gulf Shores would likely be the first high school in the country with this type of set-up, though it already has a dual enrollment program established through Faulkner.
Angie Swiger, who is the District 5 representative on the Baldwin County Board of Education, said partnering with other schools creates more opportunities for all the students in the system.
“We want students to be able to take their high school classes and then walk down the hall or across the grass and take higher level classes,” Swiger said. “Everything is in the very early stages, but we see Faulkner having classrooms and the high school having classrooms, but sharing facilities like a gymnasium, theater or a computer lab. Any facilities we could share would help lower the costs for everyone.”
Despite already looking at architectural plans, who will participate and who will fund what facility has yet to be determined. Craft said the plan was originally envisioned to include students from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, who share a middle and high school currently.
However, the city of Gulf Shores is the only entity officially committed to the plan at this point.
“All (Orange Beach) students are included in everything we’re talking about, which would involve moving the high school as it exists today,” Craft said. “Orange Beach is pursuing their own system. I don’t know how successful that will be, but if they do that, our school would just get smaller.”
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said his city has never been involved in any discussion or any planning of a new high school for its students, and if anything, the talk of such validates the city’s attempt to leave the county system.
Orange Beach officials are expecting the results of a financial feasibility study in early May, and Kennon said the city is more than ready to move ahead if it can afford to start its own school system.
“These folks don’t understand comradery, loyalty or communication,” he said. “It’s nothing but a chaotic, mega-bureaucracy that wastes taxpayer dollars. I’m concerned it’s nothing more than a political ploy —a selfish, senseless act that’s done nothing but confused everyone down here during our attempt to break away from Baldwin County.”
Even without Orange Beach, the construction of a new high school would require support from the county school board, whose members have yet to review the proposition as a whole.
“Growth is a challenge the board is very aware of, and this campus allows us to address that,” Swiger said. “It hasn’t gotten to a state yet where the entire board has been involved, but some members are very supportive and excited about it.”
Swiger said the board should be discussing the proposal at an upcoming meeting.
As it’s planned now, the partnerships with new colleges would benefit every high school student in the county, even though only students zoned for Gulf Shores High School would attend the facility full time.
Craft has already said Gulf Shores won’t fund the construction of any facility on the campus, and that will fall to the school system and colleges.
“They’re going to have to build their own facilities,” Craft said. “If they decide this is what they want, they’re going to have to do a bond issue or whatever they choose to do. It’s not a quick fix.”
Alabama and Faulkner have been in discussion with city officials and Craft said Auburn University and the University of South Alabama have expressed interest as well.
Because only community colleges have participated in dual enrollment classes in the past, Craft said four-year universities would likely have to get any partnership approved by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.
This is why Craft thinks no universities have fully committed to the idea just yet.
In the mean time, Gulf Shores is evaluating what a new facility would require, including sewer, water, electrical and connectivity needs. The city has only a few weeks to decide what additional land it needs to purchase, which Craft said will be determined by the number of university partners who commit and the outcome of Orange Beach’s attempt to start its own system.
“This is ultimately about us working with the county to make our education program better for kids,” Craft said. “These kinds of partnerships can expose students to opportunities they might not have otherwise.”
Swiger agreed, calling Gulf Shores a shinning example of how a city and school board can come together to meet the challenges they face.