The Big Build: Jefferson County School System to Undertake Its Biggest Building Project Ever

After getting a thumbs-up from voters to extend a special tax, and after an all-clear from a federal judge, the Jefferson County School System is about to embark on the biggest school construction project in its history.

Superintendent Craig Pouncey announced the plans for the massive project, some of which is already under construction, in a press conference Tuesday at the system’s central office in Homewood.

The list includes six new schools, seven existing schools that will receive renovations and/or additions, and two athletic packages for high schools. Additionally, preliminary plans were announced for a new Fultondale High School — something the city’s residents have long sought, if for no other reason than a final assurance that their community would retain its own high school and not have its students moved to neighboring Gardendale or Center Point, as the system has proposed in the past.

The new Fultondale High will be built close to the current school, though the exact location is still not yet set. The facility will house state-of-the-art classrooms and science labs, plus an expanded media center, career-tech center, and fine arts and athletic facilities. The current baseball field will be replaced and upgraded, and a new softball field will be built (the Wildcats currently play softball at a municipal complex). The new school will include students in seventh through 12th grades.

The old school will still have life, though, as the new home to the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School. The old FHS, which began life more than 50 years ago as New Castle High School — built for African-American students in the days of segregated schools — “still has a strong foundation,” Pouncey said, and will be gutted and completely refitted to be the new home of JCIB. Currently, the high school grades of the International Baccalaureate program are taught at Shades Valley High School in Irondale, while the newer Middle Years Programme is housed at Pleasant Grove High.

“Fultondale is the most central point in our system, so it makes sense to put the [IB] school there,” Pouncey said.

The timeframe for the Fultondale part of the overall project has not yet been set, Pouncey said.

The overall project is the first of this scale for the system since new high schools were built for Gardendale, Mortimer Jordan, Corner, Hueytown and Pleasant Grove over the last nine years. But before the new project could begin in earnest, two obstacles had to be overcome: the renewal of the county-wide tax assessment to pay for it, and the closure of the attempt by the city of Gardendale to break away from JefCoEd and form its own school system. The tax renewal passed, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt the final blow to Gardendale’s efforts last year, which meant that JefCoEd officials wouldn’t have to include a replacement for Gardendale High in its plans.

“If the renewal had not passed, we would not be here today,” Pouncey said.

New Elementary Schools

The new elementary schools are meant to replace several older facilities, as well as alleviate overcrowding and the use of portable classrooms in others. Some of the schools being replaced were smaller than practical for offering all students every educational opportunity, which is not only important for ensuring the best outcome for the students, but also essential for gaining approval from U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala. She must okay every significant move sought by JefCoEd as a result of Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the landmark court case first filed in 1965 that mandated the end of racially segregated schools in the system.

The new elementary schools have capacities from 600 to 750 students. “That’s the number that’s best for giving the kids all the opportunities they need. 700 is pretty much the ‘sweet spot,’” Pouncey said.

The project will also help pave the way for JefCoEd to finally secure “unitary status” — the finding by the federal courts that the system no longer operates two separate-but-equal systems for white students and minorities. Pouncey said JefCoEd will file motions with Haikala later this year that will put into motion the process eventually leading to unitary status and ending supervision of the system by the court.

Most of the new schools are scheduled to open in time for the 2020-21 school year, and all except the Hueytown schools are for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. They include:

  • Bryant Park Elementary School, which will serve an area that was cut off from the rest of the system (mainly from Grayson Valley) when Trussville broke away from JefCoEd to form its own school system. The school will be located on Old Springville Road and will house up to 750 students, most of whom will be transferred from Chalkville Elementary, which has more than 1,000 students.
  • Hueytown Primary School, which host up to 650 students in grades K through 2, transferring from the current Hueytown and North Highland elementary schools. It’s being built on the site of the old Hueytown High.
  • Hueytown Intermediate School, which will take up to 650 kids in grades 3 through 5 from Hueytown Elementary (adjacent to the new school site) and North Highland.
  • McCalla Elementary School, which will transfer 400 students from the current school of the same name and also replace Greenwood Elementary. This new school, with a capacity of 720 students, is not scheduled to open until October 2020. “McCalla is the fastest-growing area in the system,” Pouncey said.
  • W. Clemon Elementary School, which will replace both Crumly Chapel and Hillview elementary schools. The new school, named for the now-retired federal judge who was on the legal team that initially filed the Stout case in 1965 (and also represented the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the Gardendale case), is being built across from Minor High School. The school will house up to 700 students.
  • Warrior Elementary School, which will replace the current school of that name, parts of which were built by the federal Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Up to 650 children will be in the new school, including about 200 from Bryan Elementary. Schools in the Warrior, Kimberly and Morris areas are over capacity at the moment. “That area is experiencing tremendous growth; it’s our second-fastest-growing area,” Pouncey said.
  1. Renovations and Expansions

The schools that are being renovated, expanded, or both:

  • Grantswood Community School, located just off I-65 not far from Irondale, will expand with 12 new classrooms and a new lunchroom, and grow from teaching grades K-2 to K-5. Soon to be completed, the expanded Grantswood will take in students from Gresham Elementary, which was in an area of the school district near Vestavia Hills that was somewhat isolated from the rest of the system. JefCoEd sold the Gresham facility to the Vestavia Hills School System last year.
  • Hueytown Middle School is getting a new media center, administrative offices and a computer lab. All classrooms are being renovated, along with new athletic and fine arts facilities and updates to the electrical and mechanical systems.
  • Irondale Community School, which will expand from grades 3-5 to K-5, will get 10 additional classrooms and a new parking lot. This project is near completion.
  • Erwin Intermediate School in Center Point gets four additional classrooms and a new gym, plus new playground equipment and a canopy over the loading/unloading area. This project is nearing completion as well.
  • Erwin Middle School (the former E. B. Erwin High School) will get a new gym, locker rooms, concession stand and media center, with renovations to virtually the entire school, including new mechanical and electrical systems. The work is scheduled to be finished in August 2020.
  • Rudd Middle School in Pinson will get a new media center with science and computer labs, a new elevator, and new mechanical and electrical systems. The old media center will be made into new classroom space. Workers will wall off parts of the school so that construction may proceed during school time. Scheduled completion is October 2020.
  • Snow Rogers Elementary School, on Gardendale’s northern edge, will get 10 more classrooms, plus extensive renovations to the existing building, including new “storefront” windows. The lunchroom will be expanded. When completed in January, Snow Rogers will eventually take an unannounced number of students from nearby Gardendale Elementary, which is currently over capacity.

JefCoEd will also build new baseball and softball fields for Center Point High and a new football practice field for Erwin Middle. Pinson Valley High will also get a new softball field to replace one at nearby Pinson Elementary, as well as expansion of paved parking areas. The two-time defending AHSAA Class 6A state football champions got a new artificial-turf field just before last season.

Mortimer Jordan High in Kimberly is also getting a new artificial-turf field, funded by donations from the community. The finishing touches are being applied, with inspections due in the next couple of weeks. The Blue Devils have had drainage problems with the grass field at Jimmie Trotter Stadium since the new school opened in 2011; those problems, coupled with heavy rains last fall, forced the Devils’ home playoff games to be played on the road instead.