This week, Cristen Herring delivered her first presentation as superintendent of Auburn City Schools to community members at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. The presentation provided a snapshot of the successes and growth of the school system and its student body.
In the middle of her presentation, as she outlined facilities projects throughout the system, Herring addressed the "elephant in the room" — a second high school.
"While I much prefer tigers — I love blue and white tigers all during the week, and I love the orange and blue tigers that play on weekends — the elephant in the room here with us today is, 'What about the second high school?' I know that’s a question you want to ask," she said to the audience.
The Facilities Plan 2028 projects ACS needing to open a second high school in 2024. But, as administration reevaluates, the addition of a new high school could be pushed back, Herring said.
"We are evaluating almost every day the actual number of students who attend Auburn High School (AHS)," she said, adding that calculations also factor in the students in the grades below and the years they would be in the high school. "It’s possible that we could maintain our existence in AHS for a year or two longer and perhaps delay the opening of that school until 2025. It is strictly a numbers game. It is all about the capacity, the logistics, the safety of our students and the operation at a high school campus and how many students can safely and lovingly enjoy their high school experience on that one campus. What will be our tipping point?"
The capacity of the current high school is 2,100 students. Right now, there are about 1,900 students attending Auburn High.
"We could probably get (capacity) to 2,200," Herring said. "And sure, we could pull up trailers; we could see what we could do to put more students on campus there, but at what point are too many students on (the) high school campus going to create other side effects that are less wanted, less desirable?
"It is probably the largest task that I will undertake in my tenure. I pray that it is done well and that it leaves a positive impression on this community for years to come."
This year, enrollment increased by about 170 students and sits at 8,875 — nine below the enrollment projection of 8,866 for this school year.
Before continuing her presentation, Herring added that ACS looks to Madison City Schools, which currently operates two high schools, as an example of a success story. Madison City Schools has Bob Jones High School and James Clemens High School.
"It is their Madison City Bowl Week and Robby Parker, their superintendent, talks about that while there is a fierce rivalry between those two schools come this Friday night, his article in the paper yesterday said that those same kids will be with each other, eating dinner, laughing and preparing for the next day and that the sun will come up in Madison on Saturday," Herring said. "His perspective, his success of opening two schools in Madison, is certainly a story we would like to follow."
Herring also spoke of the opportunities provided to students during their time at ACS and of their successes.
In May, about 600 high school students, 96 percent of those who were freshmen four years before, graduated. Of them, 93 percent plan to pursue higher education and 53 percent received scholarships of some kind. The total amount of scholarships combined reached $23 million.
"Every class just keeps getting better," Herring said. "This is just a group of students who graduated last year."
Those who go on to pursue higher education and those who go directly into the workforce typically participate in some form of career technical education — a growing branch of programs at the high school. ACS offers 16 career tech courses, which can inspire students to enter a particular career field.
"It sometimes takes people by surprise to know that we also excel in the area of career technical education," Herring said, adding that career tech is no longer the same as vocational education or a program just for those who wish to enter the workforce after graduation.
"Yes, many of these students are well-prepared and could move right into the workforce with certificate and training and levels of expertise that makes them employable, but for the most part, our career technical education students are making career decisions; they're learning more about health occupations or aquaculture. They're discovering that that truly is their talent and interest and if it's a degree they should pursue in college."
Career technical courses offered at the high school include everything from advertising design and finance to software development and building construction.
Throughout her presentation, Herring spoke highly of the Central Office team, school principals, teachers and other faculty as well as the students — all those who makes the school system successful.
She was also quick to thank the community for its support, which she described as being "unprecedented."
"In the community of Auburn, many of the people talk about, ‘We moved here for schools. We love your schools.’ Or they retired here and their grandkids are here, but the community support of ACS is different," Herring said. "I’ve been to my first state superintendent’s meeting. Went down to Montgomery ... and it is easy to see how very different we are. Not very many places and not very many systems in Alabama can say that nearly 50 percent of their budget is provided by local funds.
"Your support of our students and schools is unprecedented."
Priorities for Herring and ACS moving forward include items that can also be found in the school system's strategic plan. They include student safety, integrated technology and a rigorous academic program, teacher development and diligent planning for enrollment and growth.
"We assure you that we have very sound stewardship of all available resources, and we are careful with each of those decisions," Herring said.