The Petal School District continues to embark on measures to accommodate its growing population, which this year has seen a record enrollment of 4,372 students registered across its five campuses.
That includes temporary and permanent fixtures such as portable classroom buildings, road work and a major addition in the form of an upcoming new elementary school.
“We had a great start to the school year, and we’re very proud of all the preparation and just the opening of school,” district superintendent Matt Dillon said. “It feels like we got over the hump, as far as the start of school goes, and we’ve got routines taking place, so we’re very proud of that also.
“We’ve been looking at trend data over the years, specifically since 2014, and it’s been a significant jump when in 2014, we were sitting at about a little over 4,000 (students) at that point. So over the years, we’ve continued to grow, but with that creates some challenges.”
In a short-term fix to help house that population, district officials have set up four portable classroom buildings at Petal High School, in addition to six of those buildings that have recently been installed at Petal Primary School.
Those units have been made available under a three-year lease by the district until a more permanent fix can be found. The next step toward that measure will be the addition of 10 permanent classrooms at Petal Primary School, which will serve as an activity wing.
Those cost of those classrooms, which will be spread out over two budget cycles, will be paid for through school district dollars.
“That is going to be roughly a 395-day process to get that going,” Dillon said. “So we are busting at the seams across the district in space on particular campuses, and we’ve been able to make it work over the years.”
Another permanent fix is a new elementary school on Herrington Road, near Petal Primary School. That school will house third and fourth grades, which will allow officials to expand Petal High School into the current elementary school that sits adjacent to the high school on Mississippi 42.
“With that, that will allow our students and staff to be able to spread out and have an optimal learning environment that’s needed to perform at a high level,” Dillon said. “So we’re excited about the enrollment; we’ve been planning, and the growth continues to come, which is a great thing. With these new classrooms, it’s going to allow us at the primary school to be able to spread out a little bit more.
“Whenever we build a new elementary school, it’ll allow the high school to take over the remainder of that campus, and they’ll be able to spread out for many, many years to come. Right now, where the elementary school is, that’ll turn into the high school, so they can spread out and they don’t have to teach out of field houses, they don’t have to teach out of the four portable classrooms.”
Out of the 13 cohorts in the Petal School District – meaning Pre-K through senior year at Petal High School – only one group measures at less than 300 students. At least two groups in that cohort are numbered in the high 300s, almost up to 400, students.
“I continue to hear stories about parents and families moving to our community because of the school district being top-rated (in the state by the Mississippi Department of Education),” Dillon said. “(That’s) in addition to being a safe city, in addition to being close to a bigger city (Hattiesburg) that has good hospitals and amenities that you’re looking for.
“So it’s been interesting to hear some of the stories – some families have zero family affiliation to Petal, but they’re looking on the map, and they’re studying on the (city) website, and they’re moving for the betterment of their families. So we feel like that is a feather in our hat, as far as the school district and our community as a whole, that people are understanding how special Petal is, and wanting to be a part of this school district and this community.”
In a further measure to accommodate the growth in the district, officials continue to work on widening Herrington Road near Petal Primary School, which is expected to help ease traffic near that school and the upcoming elementary school. The road will be widened from two lanes to four, and officials are hoping for an additional westbound turn lane at the intersection of Herrington Road and Mississippi 42 to help ease traffic in the mornings.
The project also calls for two more turn lanes from Stadium Drive to the first entrance of Petal Primary School.
The widening project is being conducted at a cost of approximately $1.2 million, and is expected to be complete by August 31 if everything goes according to plan.