School bell set to ring in August

By Clay Wilson

Nearly 84,000 students will stream into Clayton and Henry County schools within the next three weeks, and school personnel in each county are scrambling to get ready.

"To my knowledge, everything seems to be going quite well," said Charles White, coordinator of public affairs and community relations for Clayton County Schools.

Clayton system officials are projecting that 51,538 students will come into the system this school year, which starts Aug. 9. Not only is that up by 1,586 students from last year, it could also push the system over a distinctive threshold.

White said that if the system's projections materialize, and so do the Atlanta Public School System's projections, Clayton will surpass the Atlanta system in size. This will make Clayton Schools the fifth largest public school system in Georgia.

The system will have two new schools, Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Morrow and Kemp Primary School in Hampton. Jonesboro Middle School has also moved into a new building on Arnold Street.

M.D. Roberts Middle School on Walt Stephens Road is one of the schools that will feel the impact of Jonesboro Middle's opening. According to M.D. Roberts assistant principal Duane Roberts, the school's student population is expected to drop from around 1,100 to about 950.

If the numbers stay as projected, he said, the school should be able to get students out of the 12 portable classrooms in which they attended class last year.

Overall, Roberts said, "Things are going pretty well right now" in the back-to-school preparations. "We're just getting the building ready for teachers to return."

The system's pre-planning begins on Aug. 3, and Roberts said M.D. Roberts Middle is expecting 12 new teachers.

New programs in Clayton

White said system officials are particularly excited about three new initiatives the system is pursuing.

The most wide-ranging new program is the "Educational Renaissance Initiative."

With the slogan "Rebirth, Revival, Renewal," the initiative aims to revitalize a system that spent much of the last year mired in controversy – and on probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting body.

The program includes the "Day One Activity," in which volunteers will be stationed at each of the system's schools to provide incoming students with a greeting and a gift from the county's business community. White said the day is meant as a kickoff for a year of community involvement with the system.

Another new program is the Ninth Grade Transition Program. Aimed at improving the attendance, academic performance and behavior of the system's projected 4,900-plus rising ninth graders, the program will use a "school-within-a-school" model to provide an insulated, more nurturing environment for freshman.

A third change White mentioned was the expansion of the system's after-school program. Formerly called the "After-School Enrichment Program", it will now be "Campus Kids." Its hours will run from immediately after school to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

New schools in Henry

In Henry County, system administrators are anxiously watching the progress on two of the system's four new schools.

"I think it's going extremely well, other than the building issues that we have from time to time with new construction," said Assistant Superintendent for School Operations and Improvement Bill Shearer.

System officials project an enrollment of 32,215 students, up from just over 30,000 last year. To handle the growth, the system has built four new schools: Dutchtown Middle and High schools and Red Oak Elementary School, all in the northeast quadrant of the county, and Luella Elementary, in the south.

Dutchtown High and Luella Elementary present the "building issues" to which Shearer referred. Delays in construction at these schools recently caused the county board of education to award new contracts to a different construction company.

School system officials have said the academic wing of Dutchtown High School will be ready in time for the beginning of school, so DHS will start Aug. 2. At Luella, however, they were so concerned about the progress that they made contingency plans just in case.

According to system Coordinator of Community Relations Cindy Foster, those plans entail housing students from Hampton and Oakland Elementary schools – the ones from which Luella's population will be drawn – in portable classrooms at their respective schools. The students would be placed in classes with the teachers they will have when Luella opens.

However, Foster said, there is a "slim chance" that the school could be ready in time, in which case it will open Aug. 2 "even if that means moving the weekend before school starts."

Besides the problems at Dutchtown and Luella, Shearer said, "To my knowledge everything's going to be ready for the teachers to come back (for pre-planning this) Monday."

Shearer said he is excited about the upcoming year, noting that the Leadership Development Seminar held in June for system- and school-level administrators stressed this year's theme of "ensuring success for each student."

"Dr. (Jack) Parish (the system's superintendent) has articulated a clear vision," Shearer said, "and everybody seems to be getting on board."