State of the Schools: HCS enrollment rises despite pandemic
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic might have affected nearly all aspects of Hartselle City Schools this year, but according to Superintendent Dr. Dee Dee Jones, one thing it hasn’t slowed is enrollment.
“I think every superintendent thought their enrollment would decrease because of COVID-19; well, that didn’t happen for Hartselle City Schools,” Jones said. “We’re continuing to grow. On Friday we enrolled five students, and people say, ‘Those students are probably from outside the district,’ but no, those people bought homes, and they moved to Hartselle.
“We have people moving to north Alabama, and the great thing is, they’re moving to Hartselle, which is very exciting.”
Jones said HCS now sits at 3,561 students, which is an enrollment record for the system.
The recent growth was one of the many topics Jones covered at the State of the Schools address Oct. 7 at Burningtree Country Club in Decatur.
Held by the Hartselle Area Chamber of Commerce and presented by Redstone Federal Credit Union, the State of the Schools address annually brings leaders from HCS and the community together to discuss the goings-on of the school system as a whole. Because of a transition in leadership last year at the HACC, the event was not held.
“We’re continuing in our tradition and in excellence,” Jones added, mentioning that while this year has been like no other, the staff and teachers of HCS have worked tirelessly to plan and prepare for all situations and possible outcomes. “Because of a federal grant due to COVID-19, we’ve been able to provide a MacBook Air to every classroom teacher. We’re prepared should we have to go back to distance learning or total remote learning for all our students.”
Jones said thanks to a close partnership with city leaders, a School Protection Officer or School Resource Officer is on site at each Hartselle school building. “To have that security in our schools is huge,” she said. “That feeling of safety for not only our parents but our teachers as well is so important.”
Among its varied academic accomplishments, this year Hartselle Junior High School made the district a Blue Ribbon Lighthouse School district, with every school in the system achieving the status. “We’re so excited to make that accomplishment,” Jones said.
Another addition to HCS this year is a full-time clinician offering mental health services to students and a platform that extends those benefits to employees as well. Jones said HCS received a federal grant in the amount of $50,000 to be able to hire a district-wide mental health clinician who will aid students in dealing with a variety of mental health issues.
“Because COVID caused anxiety for so many and different stresses for our families, before the grant even came out, before that money was even released, our board of education supported that action and made that happen,” Jones said. “We have to take care of our students. If they can’t focus at school because they’re focused on some family issue or something going on outside, learning isn’t going to happen. We’ve got to make sure we have tools in place to help our kids.”
Furthermore, HCS has partnered with American Behavorial to extended mental health access to all employees.
“Who was called on first to make all these changes within a week? Our teachers. That’s why I’m proud of the partnership with American Behavioral benefit,” Jones said. “We’re really good at shifting and making changes, but we had to do it fast, and that was a stressor on them. When we came back in the fall, we had people who were nervous about entering the building. We needed to provide them an outlet of support.
“Now all of our employees have access to three clinical visits each month that are free to them. (The benefit) also extends to their immediate family. We were able to do this with the funds related to COVID and giving them that resource of support. It was needed.”
Jones said thanks to the generosity of local and statewide elected officials, including the Hartselle City Council and Mayor Randy Garrison, Sen. Arthur Orr, Rep. Scott Stadthagen, Rep. Parker Moore and others, various projects will be funded in the near future. Some of those include additional canopies for drop–off and pick–up locations as well as extended parking lots at Barkley Bridge Elementary School and Hartselle High School.
In 2019 Barkley Bridge underwent a complete overhaul and replacement of its HVAC system, and the windows at Hartselle Junior High School were replaced as well – both projects saving the system nearly $10,000 in utility bills in the first month alone. “We cut some major costs by just replacing some old equipment,” Jones said.
A partnership with Coca Cola will provide each Hartselle school, as well as the central office, with a new digital sign. Also, thanks to the Tiger Card through Redstone Federal Credit Union, HCS receives an average of $1,500 every month to be spent on students in various ways.
Updates and changes
Jones said 2020, with its challenges, has been a big year financially speaking for the school system.
“When we settle with the online sales tax, we are looking to take that portion and make a partial payment for a new Crestline Elementary,” Jones said. “Crestline is our oldest school. We need new wiring, plumbing and windows, and that’s over $7 million.”
Jones said if a state bond is issued, the system can construct a new school building, and the good parts of the current Crestline school could be used to house all of Hartselle’s Pre-K classes.
“We have 1,066 students at Hartselle High School, and if you look at the classes coming forward, the students in first grade right now, we have 300 when you add it up,” Jones said. “We have to plan as a school system and as a city. We’re going to need your continued support.”
Jones said she is excited for all that has led the school system to where it is now and where it’s going.
“It takes all of us working together. Whether it’s COVID or weather, whether it’s making a decision on any challenge we might face, we work together, just like we do when we call on the Hartselle City Council or Hartselle Utilities and others of you in this room,” Jones said. “I don’t want to lose sight of what it’s all about. I’m thankful to get the opportunity to make a difference. I’m thankful to have made it through the first nine weeks without having to shut anything down, and I’m excited about the future and the changes that are to come.”
Representatives of the Hartselle School Board attended the event, and Randy Sparkman said he and his fellow board members “couldn’t be prouder of the work Dr. Jones and her whole team did to ensure that Hartselle students got nine weeks of solid instruction during the ongoing pandemic.”
“They demonstrated significant skill, determination and caring as they worked with families to get the most out of this first term. They even,” Sparkman joked, “got to play a little football.”