Petersburg school board votes to move incoming sixth grade class to Blandford Academy

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Blandford Academy is the new home for Petersburg's sixth grade students.
Blandford Academy is the new home for Petersburg's sixth grade students.

PETERSBURG – Next year’s sixth graders are going to be learning in a different school than in previous years. Petersburg City Public Schools is moving forward with a plan that will move the grade level from its current location at Vernon Johns Middle School to into vacated classrooms at Blandford Academy.

Superintendent Dr. Julius Hamlin said time was becoming a factor in finding a location for the incoming sixth grade class. The new school year is already just a few months away. Hamlin recommended the school board adopt the move.

Blandford Academy currently runs the city’s alternative learning programs. It is only using about five of its classrooms for those programs. Blandford was chosen as the future home for PCPS’ sixth graders due to overcrowding at Vernon Johns.

“Give then enrollment numbers projected of existing fifth graders who are going to be sixth graders, we knew it was only going to get worse in terms of overcrowding,” Hamlin said. “One of the overarching goals was to eliminate the overcrowding but also foster a sixth grade climate that would allow them to have independence.”

Class sizes have been rising over the past few years. There are expected to be about 316 incoming sixth graders for the 2022-23 school year – around 77 more students than five years earlier.

Parents of the incoming sixth grade class – current fifth graders – were surveyed for their thoughts on the move.

As of March 4, 308 parents had responded to that survey. Eighty-three percent of parents supported moving the class from Vernon Johns – 65% supported Blandford as the new location, 19% said no to Blandford and 16% answered maybe.

Of the initial respondents, 89 gave additional feedback. The most common feedback was reiterated support for moving sixth graders to an alternate site (39%). The second most common response showed concern about Blandford as a location (21%). Other parents were against the move entirely (11%).

A recent report from the Virginia Department of Education suggested that Blandford be closed because the low attendance of its alternative programs makes it an inefficient use of funds. Hamlin said costs for services like heating, cooling and electricity are nearly the same regardless of how many students are on the premise for learning.

The plan is still in flux, but as it stands, new students will fill an additional 21 classrooms at Blandford. It will have four pods of about 75 students each for an average classroom size between 18 and 19 students per teacher. Five of those 21 classrooms will be used for electives and other programming.

Blandford is currently in need of several facility upgrades, some of which are fairly major. The school itself was first built in 1939. There have been three additional renovations since, the most recent being in 1996. PCPS documents show that the roof is beyond repair and in need of a full replacement for $320,000. About $38,500 more is needed for its food facilities to be in working order. Repairs to vacant classrooms could also reach another $30,000.

Hamlin said that Blandford is essentially the only option for moving the overcrowded sixth graders. There are no other facilities capable of accepting these students currently. The schools’ most immediate capital need is a total school replacement for both Walnut Hill Elementary and Westview Early Childhood Education Center. That cost was estimated at around $26 million but has likely ballooned since it was first quoted. Hamlin said that once that new K-5 building is settled, PCPS could start to look towards possible renovations for an upgraded sixth grade space.

The school board vote to move sixth graders from Vernon Johns to Blandford was approved 4-1, with the only dissenting vote coming from Ward 5 representative Lois Long. Absent from that vote were Ward 4 representative Celeste Wynn and Ward 6 representative Bernard Lundy.

You can reach Sean Jones at sjones@progress-index.com. Follow him at @SeanJones_PI. Follow The Progress-Index on Twitter at @ProgressIndex.

This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Petersburg school board votes to move sixth graders to Blandford