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Business leaders urged to increase school involvement

In remarks to local business leaders on Thursday morning, Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley spent much of his time talking about student accomplishments and looming financial challenges facing the district.

But in the end, his message was clear: Business leaders need to be active partners with the school system.

During a Clayton County Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting, Heatley challenged the business community, and several elected officials, to be more involved in local education.

"Education is a part of national security," Heatley said. "If we don't have an educated youth population, we don't have an educated adult population later on, and that can lead to poor leadership in the future.

"I need you to be active in our schools. Volunteer in our schools. Be mentors to our students. Come to school board meetings. Hold us accountable for our actions because so goes the school system, so goes the county."

Heatley emphasized to the business community that the kind of attention and interest in the school system, that came from various segments of Clayton County during the district's recent accreditation crisis, needs to continue as the school system rebounds.

He said the community, including the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, played an active role in "re-inventing and re-invigorating" Clayton County Public Schools during the accreditation crisis, by electing an entirely new Clayton County Board of Education in 2008.

As the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to (and eventually did) take away the district's accreditation that year, the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce took out newspaper ads calling on members of the old Clayton County school board to resign from office.

The chamber then hosted a school board candidates forum that summer, during which members of the public could hear school board candidates explain their stances on education-related issues.

"You came to the school board meetings, and you got involved," Heatley said. "Now, we need you to keep coming back."

The superintendent said that as he works to find a way to address an expected school system budget deficit that could grow to $103.5 million by the end of fiscal year 2012, input from the business community would be welcome. "I'm willing to listen to any suggestions you have," he said.

Heatley also listed several ways business leaders can get involved in the district, including attending school board meetings; participating in the school system's 500 Men Standing in the Gap mentoring program; participating in a golf tournament fund-raiser that the district will hold this spring to raise money for student scholarships; reading to elementary school students in March as part of the National Education Association's Read Across America Day celebration, and getting involved in the district's career and technical education program.

Lee Fincher, a partner in the Jonesboro-based law firm of Fincher, Denmark and Williams, stood up and urged other business leaders to get involved in the career and technical education program. She said her law firm first got involved in the program several years ago for summers only, but is now active in the program year-round.

"We've never had any problems with the students who've worked in our office," Fincher said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of about our students. Call [the district's work-based learning office] and sign up to be a part of it."

Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford said the chamber is already heavily involved with the school system through programs such as the Clayton Youth Leadership Program; the local STAR student and teacher recognition program; the district's Day ONE back-to-school program, and the Read Across America program.

Beauford said the chamber has also elected Heatley to serve on its board of directors. He will be officially sworn in as a board member at the chamber's annual banquet on Saturday, she said.

Another way the chamber is planning to continue to be involved with the school system is the re-vamping of its education committee, said Fincher, who will serve as the committee's chairperson.

Beauford said one new initiative of the committee this year will be the pairing of business owners with schools, so business owners can spend a day with a school principal to learn what goes on in Clayton County schools.

She added that principals will have an opportunity to spend a day in the business owner's business, to learn what skills students need to have to be successful in the workplace.

"We're accepting Dr. Heatley's challenge," Beauford said. "He hit the nail on the head when he said the success of the county carries over from how well the school system is doing. In order to attract businesses to the county, you've got to have an educated work force."