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Columbus Alternative High School Seeks District Support for Facility Improvements

Grant Walters Grant Walters Columbus Alternative High School Seeks District Support for Facility ImprovementsPhoto via Google.
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Last week, students, staff, families, community members, and media were invited to Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS) to discuss ongoing concerns regarding the physical integrity of its aging North Linden campus buildings.

Working with the WORTH Foundation, a local leadership and civic engagement organization, the facilitated conversations aimed to provide a first-hand look at the deteriorating conditions in the 100-year-old facility that students, teachers, and family members say are a hindrance to learning and instruction.

CAHS senior Brandon Simmons and junior Skyler Reed led a facility tour to highlight a lengthy list of issues plaguing the school’s classrooms, restrooms, auditorium, gymnasium, and common areas. Inadequately sized rooms, patched pipes, climate control problems, and poorly insulated doors and windows were among the deficiencies in plain view.

“We can’t fit the student body in here,” Simmons explains as we stop in the auditorium. “If we want to meet at this school, we can’t. They have to split us up into upperclassmen and lowerclassmen because [it] was built in the early 1900s and was not designed for the modern learning environment. That makes community building and group activities very challenging. “

The stifling heat in the auditorium was uncomfortable for even the few minutes the tour group was inside. Simmons assured us that this was the norm.

“This is typically how the temperature gets all the time. The boiler here at CAHS is believed to be the original [one], so, again, about 100 years old with the rest of the building. And parts are no longer manufactured to fit the boiler, so that means when something goes out, we have to either MacGyver it, or we have to have a part on back-order, which makes outages continue on for days, if not weeks. I’m a junior, and every year the heat has gone out. We also have problems with the blower, so sometimes it gets too warm, and in other places it’s much cooler.”

Originally constructed and opened as McGuffey Elementary School in 1926, the facility reportedly has not undergone a major renovation beyond a minor expansion in 1953. Amenities like restroom stalls appeared to be of a more appropriate length and width for small children versus young adults.

Other issues like rodent and insect infestations, peeling paint, broken electrical outlets, and leaky roofing have also surfaced regularly during the academic year. Simmons says student anxiety connected to the school facilities reached a peak when a sump pump failure caused a transformer fire at the school last November, forcing students to quickly evacuate.

“[It] caused absolute chaos, and it was very concerning from a safety standpoint. I was actually in the gym, and originally when I was told we were evacuating I thought it was a school shooter, because, you know, that’s just sort of the environment that we live in.”

Among the myriad of problems they pointed out on the tour, Reed emphasized that students and teachers have persisted as a unified community in spite of the challenges.

“We love our school and the environment it produces. We just don’t like the conditions that we’re in all the time. But we still thrive in them,” she says as the tour passes by several vibrant student art displays lining the hallways. “One of the things that CAHS prides itself on is its art. Not just visual art, but also theatrical arts.”

Simmons hopes that drawing more attention to CAHS’ issues will invoke a response from the Columbus Board of Education.

“We’re asking the Board to conduct an independent contractor assessment of the building. We would like them to hire a professional who understands building safety, who understands plumbing, who understands electrical, and come in and look at the school and see what’s what — look at our safety concerns. If we had one sump pump failure, when is the next one? If we have roof damage, where is the next spot?

We have always followed the [Columbus City Schools] Facilities Task Force, but after the transformer fire happened, it really made us feel like we were not safe here in this building.”

Reed hopes the time and energy students are investing in this cause will help them and their teachers succeed and continue to build the same positive experience she’s had at the school.

“I love CAHS. I’ve been here for four years, and when I came in, I was a very shy…I would never have done anything like this — not giving anybody a tour or anything. It just gives you a safe place to grow. The teachers care about you, and they want things to be better for you. They see the conditions and fight through it. They see everything that’s going on, even in your home life, and they speak to that without being overbearing or overstepping any boundaries.

The teachers are amazing. [Principal] Sanders cares about you, and he’ll do anything for you, if you ask. They’re trying their best…imagine us — we’re just sitting and listening to what they’re saying, and we’re burning up, or we’re freezing, and the conditions are hard. But, when you’re teaching, it’s very hard to do in conditions like this. But we love it.”

Reed’s father, Vincent, who was a student at the original McGuffey Elementary School, wants CAHS’ teachers and students to receive more than temporary solutions to address the school’s deficiencies.

“They’re unnerving. We actually took [Skyler] out of private school to bring her here, because she was really wanting the education it provided. But, I mean, getting into the school…I’m really concerned about the heat, really concerned about the air conditioning, and the fire hazards.,” he said. “That’s really unnerving for us. She’s a soldier and she gets through it, but I just think with the quality of kids they’re able to put out in these conditions, what kind of kids could they put out in optimal conditions?

I’d love to see a new school. I think they deserve it. I don’t pull any punches about it. I think if you were doing a risk analysis of the cost of replacing it versus fixing it up, I don’t think you’d even come close. Being taxpayers, I wouldn’t mind paying for it. I’d tie my name to that ballot.”

Principal Daryl Sanders echoes Reed’s desire for big change, but that it honors the strong track CAHS has established since opening in 1978.

“My hope would be that we could find ways as a community and as a district to partner to help address some of the challenges that exist in the school. That’s reality, and we own those. But, I think that, more importantly, what I don’t want to be lost is 40 years of excellence. Because, in spite of the challenges here, our students have thrived and they’ve done a stellar job. And, of course, we want the best for them, but I don’t want it to diminish what the program has done with all of the challenges.

So, my hopes and dreams are that we could have a facility that would be acceptable for the entire learning community.”

Declining facility conditions are a widespread concern across Columbus City Schools, prompting Interim Superintendent John Stanford to form the division’s Facility Task Force last year, comprised of volunteer family, community, and business stakeholders. They review data and make recommendations, like changes in attendance boundaries, enrollment, and grade configuration, on schools and administrative buildings the Board of Education might consider for closing.

A Formulation of Draft Recommendations presentation released by the task force last August initially proposed an option of moving CAHS to North High School, located two miles west of its current site. In early October, East High School and Linden-McKinley High School were mentioned as suggested relocation scenarios as part of a published Learning From Community Feedback document, but cited capacity challenges, among others, as an obstacle.

However, those same options to relocate CAHS do not appear in the task force’s Determining Final Recommendations document that was published in late October, but a brief bullet point in a section titled “Words of Wisdom” requests that the Columbus Board of Education consider “addressing the conditions of the CAHS facility,” without accompanying specific strategies. A search of available documents on the site did not reveal additional information.

More information about Columbus Alternative High School can be found on its official website.

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