by Tori Hamby

DAVIDSON – The final student body of Davidson IB Middle School made one last walk to Davidson’s Village Green last week, as they said goodbye to their beloved school.

Thursday, June 9, brought tears, smiles and laughter to the faces of hundreds of students, teachers, alumni and parents gathered on the Village Green for the closing ceremony.

“It’s the end of a chapter, but it’s also the start of a new chapter,” said Jo Karney, who has served as principal of Davidson IB for four years.

Karney will take over as principal at J.M. Alexander Middle School, where the middle school International Baccalaureate  program will open in the fall. The program will operate as a school within a school.

A few students carried signs that read “Farewell D.IB and “Hello JMA.” Many said they were looking forward to the opportunities that Alexander Middle has to offer, such as better facilities, sports programs and a short distance from International Baccalaureate programs at Blythe Elementary School and North Mecklenburg High School. But they also said they don’t expect to replicate the small environment of Davidson IB, which enrolls around 240 students each year.

“I’m going to miss the school’s smallness,” sixth-grader Anna Diefenbach said. “There’s not one person whose face I don’t know in this school. It’s just been so easy to get to know one another.”

Sixth-grader Elise Davis said she will miss going to school in the center of a small town, where students could spend afternoons doing homework and socializing on the green or visiting the local soda shop.

“I’ve always liked going to the Green,” Elise said. “It’s always been something fun to do after school.”

During the ceremony, Karney and her students presented town officials with a bench that will be placed on the Green. All students signed the bench in hopes their school could keep a small presence in Davidson.

“We are happy to have this tangible reminder of you, but we will never forget you,” Commissioner Margo Williams told the crowd. “We will never forget what you have meant to this town.

The end

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials began discussing the school’s closure last fall when another year of budget woes forced officials to significantly cut cost and save money. Despite its status as one the district’s highest performing middle schools, the aging Davidson building cost the system $8,565.04 per student to operate annually, making it one of the system’s most expensive facilities.

The age of the multi-story, brick facility on South Street, a block from downtown, also blocked any possibility of expanding the program.

The building lacked central air conditioning, wheelchair-accessible exits and fire safety sprinklers among other badly needed repairs.

A loophole in state law allowed the building to pass its annual inspection. Buildings only have to meet inspection standards set during the years its certificate of occupancy was issued, which, in Davidson IB’s case, was 1948. Any repairs made to the building would force district officials to bring it up to current code, too expensive for such a small student body.

Moving the program to a bigger, newer school, such as Alexander Middle, which enrolls about 600 students per year, will allow the program to expand while becoming more cost effective. Despite fervent protest from Davidson IB students and parents, the school board voted to close the school in February.

“I think everyone has finally come to a point of acceptance,” Karney said. “We are sad to leave, but we know that there are other opportunities waiting for us at JMA.”

The future

Although students will no longer roam the halls of the South Street building, town officials say they want to keep the facility a central part of the downtown.

Earlier this year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials asked for bids from potentials tenants on nine closed school buildings, including Davidson IB Town officials hope to rent the building for $1 per year, an agreement that is similar to the lease arrangement it has with the Ada Jenkins Center.

The town budget, approved Tuesday night, June 14, includes $20,000 for a study to analyze the building’s condition and possible uses.
In 2008, the town began making plans to renovate the school and add a recreation center and gymnasium that the it and school would share. But the historic recession shelved the $7 million project.

Mayor John Woods said he hopes the town can continue with some its previous plans for the property. “We see the building becoming a multi-use facility for the entire community,” said Woods, who played basketball in the school’s gymnasium as an elementary and middle school student. “We do see partnerships developing with potential users and hope that it can continue to be such a big part of the Davidson community.”

Lake Norman Christian School, a private school that serves kindergarten through ninth-grade students, also submitted a bid for the building. The school currently leases facilities from Lake Norman Baptist Church in Cornelius, but Head of School Michael Reynolds said he hopes the school can find a more permanent home.

If Lake Norman Christian is chosen as the building’s new tenant, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Lake Norman Christian officials will negotiate the length of the lease, which could range from five to 20 years, Reynolds said. The school, which was founded in 2008, enrolled 180 students last year.

Guardian Alliance is the third organization to bid on the Davidson IB building. Guardian Alliance bid on all 11 empty schools, and according to its proposal submitted to the school district, hopes to create a network of community development centers to “enrich the lives of the entire Charlotte community by engaging our youth in a healthy, modern and inspiring environment.”

The school district doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from the lease, said Mike Raible, executive director of planning and project management for the school district. Board members will weigh other considerations, such as the educational value potential tenants can bring to the community, along with potential revenue.

“We hope that these schools will continue to be used in the community, even  if they are no longer housing students,” Raible said. “The money we expect to receive from these leases may not be substantial – it certainly won’t solve our budget shortfalls – but the leasing process will allow the buildings to continue to be used as a community resource. It’s an appropriate use for former public schools.”

The school board is expected to choose the Davidson building’s new tenant later this month or in July.

Saying goodbye

Whatever the future holds for the vacated building, students, parents and alumni say it will always hold a special place for them.

Sarah Homes, co-president elect of J.M. Alexander Middle’s Parent-Teacher-Organization, said she will always be grateful for the experiences Davidson IB provided to her rising eighth-grader.

“The experience has been tremendous,” Homes said. “He’s very well-rounded and thinks globally. He used to think in terms of black-and-white, but now he sees the grey in everything.”

Looking back

We asked current students and teachers to share their favorite Davidson I.B. Middle School memory.

• "When we had a chemical engineer come to our class, and he made a balloon explode on fire. It really made my friend freak out."
– Bayleigh Mann, seventh grade

• "My favorite memory was International Day. We got to learn about a bunch of different countries and their cultures."
– Jaoa Barber, sixth grade

• "When we all went to the sixth grade dance. We got to do dances that everyone knows like the Dougie."
– Christine Park, sixth grade

• "My favorite memories would have to be our trips to Hiddenite and Camp Thunderbird."
– Cindy Farmer, sixth grade math teacher

• "Camp Thunderbird. We got to learn new things about each other and talk to people who go to our school that we’ve never met."
– Monell Dunlap, sixth grade