Clayton's students head back to class

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Lovejoy High School English Teacher Keisha Pooler spoke in a matter-of-fact tone on Monday morning, as she told her first class of the day — a class filled with seniors — that she expected them to be ready to learn every day in her class this semester.

With the Czech proverb, "Wisdom is easy to carry, but difficult to gather," written on the classroom's dry-erase board behind her, Pooler told her students they would be learning something new, both academically and socially, every day.

She also directed their attention to a large, four-level "rigor meter" that was posted on the wall next to the board, and told her students that will be how she determines their success. On Monday, the pupils were at level 1, but Pooler told them they will be expected to be at the level 4 by the end of the semester.

Monday was the first day of the 2010-2011 school year for Clayton County Public Schools, which meant that, as the sun rose on Monday morning, thousands of children, from across the county, gathered in their schools after a two-month summer vacation.

Superintendent Edmond Heatley said the district is beginning the new year with approximately 50,000 students, although he said he expects that number will fluctuate in the coming weeks, as students enroll or withdraw. As he wrapped up a visit to Lovejoy High School, he said the district wants to see student achievement and parental and community involvement increase this year.

"The expectation ... is to make sure all of our students are learning something new every day, to increase parent participation, to make sure the community gets more involved in the schools, and to bring back school pride," Heatley said. "If we do all of that, we're going to make AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress]; we'll increase our Georgia High School Graduation Test results, and we'll see our graduation rates go up."

The school system also opened a new school — the Eddie J. White K-8 Academy — on Monday. It is the first school in the district where students will begin attending the institution as kindergartners and stay there until they're ready to begin high school.

The K-8 academy's principal, Clarence Jackson, said the school had an enrollment of approximately 1,200 students on the day before the school year began, but he added more students were being enrolled on Monday morning.

The academy's first day began with parents of both elementary and middle school students coming in droves to watch their children begin the school year. By 8 a.m., the parents' cars had filled up the school's parking lots, and the parents began parking along Panhandle Road. By 9:30 a.m., though, many of them had left — for a little while, at least, Jackson said.

"Parents want to see that their children are being taken care of," the principal said. "We have a process in place to keep things running smoothly. When you have a smooth process in place, it allows parents to move on with their day ... I've had a lot of parents tell me they were coming back later today to have lunch with their children, though."

For the academy's parents, and its somewhat shy students, Monday was a day mixed with anticipation and excitement. "I'm looking forward to just making good grades this year," said fifth-grader, Jeffrey Taylor, 10. "I'm not bothered that my summer is over. When my summer was over, I was ready to come back to school."

Miracle Mitchell, 13, a seventh-grader, said she was excited about the school's "new" factor. "It's a new school," she said. "It's just a happy place to be." Mitchell's mother, Antonia Davis, said she liked the school's concept, because she felt "it will allow young kids to grow up in a stable environment."

A new school was not the only change in the district this year. In a cost-cutting move, the school system is not providing bus service to 4,600 students who live within a mile and a half of their schools. The district has had the policy on the books for several years, but it has also been several years since it was enforced.

There were reminders on Monday that the policy change was being enforced, such as a Clayton County police car that was parked outside a neighborhood on Panhandle Road, approximately a half mile from the K-8 academy.

Heatley said he understood some parents are upset with the district for enforcing the policy, but he reiterated the district's stance that it had to be done from a financial standpoint. "We've got to have the dollars to pay for services you provide," he said.

He added that he wants parents to call School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson, at (770) 473-2819, to report any hazardous areas that might pose a threat to walking children.

"We had several district employees, including myself, out driving around the county last week, looking for any hazards that are out there, but we weren't able to catch everything," Heatley said. "Safety is big to us."