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James School may be split up

Less than two years ago, the Clemmie Ross James K-8 School opened to serve urban students who were no longer being bused to the suburbs for integration.

It was an unusual concept for Hillsborough County when James became one of three schools in the county to serve both elementary and middle school children under one roof.

But educators now say it may be time to end the school's days as a combined campus.

They are proposing the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders be transferred out of the east Tampa school and James be converted strictly to an elementary school beginning in the 2006-07 academic year.

Hillsborough's pupil assignment director, Steve Ayers, said the James building does not have the facilities such as a science lab, gymnasium or large cafeteria that are needed for a middle school.

"It was not built for a middle school curriculum," he said.

Many parents are unhappy with the proposed change. About 60 of them showed up at a community meeting last week and several asked the school district to keep James as a K-8 school.

But others said Friday they believe the school's population should be divided.

"A lot of the younger kids are influenced by what the older kids do," said Hope Lee, 39, who has a fifth-grader and sixth-grader at James. "I don't feel they should all be together."

Noel and Michelle Cootes, whose daughter Janet is a fourth-grader, said they do not like how the older and younger kids sometimes mingle at the school.

"The young kids are picking up too much of the adult behavior from the older kids," Cootes said.

A final decision has not been made about the school's configuration but will be soon. If the older students are transferred, about 400 of the school's 879 students would leave.

Ayers said administrators are weighing the request by several parents to keep the school as is, which would require major renovations to James to make it better suit older students. Another meeting will be scheduled with parents in the coming weeks, he said, before a formal recommendation on the school's future is forwarded to the School Board.

If James becomes an elementary, the older children will be bused to other middle schools. They could be transferred:

+ To the suburban campuses of Webb, Hill, Walker or Memorial middle schools, where area students were sent during busing for desegregation.

+ To Brandon middle schools, Mann and McLane.

+ To magnet schools such as Young, Ferrell, Stewart, Franklin, Williams and Orange Grove.

School Board member Doretha Edgecomb said the school district must weigh the wishes of parents against the desire by educators to make the campus fit its original purpose as an elementary.

"If we listen and act on what the community wants, it'll remain a K-8 school," she said. "It was never intended to be a K-8 school. It was always intended to be that way only as a temporary fix."

Edgecomb said she believes the district could make quicker academic progress at the school if it were returned to an elementary.

James is one of the district's most struggling schools. Last year, the state gave it a D grade for low student test scores. Nine out of every 10 kids are minority and poor enough to qualify for free meals.

In 2004, the district opened James and Booker T. Washington with grades kindergarten through eight. They were originally planned as elementary schools, a place closer to home for children who had been bused for desegregation.

But a problem arose when the school district sought applications for its new controlled choice student assignment plan that began in fall 2004. There was not enough space for middle school students in the central part of the county, so the two schools were flooded with children whose parents wanted them to be close to home.

Soon after the schools opened, there were problems, ranging from overcrowding to equipment delays. Both principals who opened the schools were transferred and former School Board member Doris Ross Reddick publicly chastised administrators for conditions at the campuses.

This school year, the district converted Washington to an elementary. James' conversion, if approved, would occur in August. That would leave Rampello Downtown Partnership and Roland Park as the county's only K-8 schools.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sppimes.com.

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