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SACS party raises hopes for new school year

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Jeylin White

jwhite@news-daily.com

Scores of Clayton County residents, school officials and staff members, elected officials, students and parents, braved the sizzling heat -- and even a bit of rain -- on Saturday, to join the official celebration of the school system winning back its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

The celebration kicked off with school leaders and local elected officials imparting words of wisdom to the crowd that ebbed and flowed as the event covered more than four hours at the Gerald Matthew's Soccer Complex, in Lovejoy.

The festivities included performances from school students, who showed off their talents: Students rapped, danced, sang and played the violin. There were also inflatables for kids, a clown who painted faces, and food and snacks that included ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers.

Noticeably absent from the celebration aimed at restoring community pride and confidence in the school system, however, was Superintendent Edmond Heatley.

Deputy Superintendent Stefanie Phillips told the audience the reason for Heatley's absence was because of a family event he had to attend. "His mother put the fear of death in him, if he did not attend the family event," said Phillips, "but, he's here in spirit."

(During a school board meeting Monday night, Heatley apologized to the community for missing Saturday's celebration. He said he was out of town to celebrate his father's 78th birthday. He then thanked all of the community sponsors who made the event possible. "We could not have done this without the community's help," he said. "We [the district] didn't have any money to put on this event.

"As long as the community had a good time, and the staff had a good time, I was there anyway," he said. After all, he added, the purpose for the celebration was to let the public know how grateful school officials were for the community sticking with the district during the "trials and tribulations" of re-gaining full accreditation.)

The school district lost its accreditation in 2008, after failing to meet eight of nine mandates that SACS, the accrediting agency, had issued earlier that year. Then in May 2009, it regained accreditation on a two-year, probationary status. And finally, regained full accreditation earlier this year.

After the speeches on Saturday, the party seemed to pick up steam when the "Electric Slide," was introduced. Even then, community members seemed a little reluctant to join in, until the D.J. -- Marcus D. Wiley, of Praise 102.5 FM -- played the "Wobble," the newest version of the Electric Slide -- and young and old seemed to find common ground.

Sharde Harper and Kayla Hines, who attend Mundy's Mill Middle school, came out to support the school system. Both agreed that their teachers, and school officials, have done a great job in helping improve student achievement. They said the celebration was well-deserved.

"I feel like all my teachers have done a great job in helping me," said Hines. "We need a little more authority [in the schools]," she said, "because we have a lot of bad things going on in the schools, like pregnancies, and gangs."

Harper, on the other hand, said she was concerned about possible cutbacks in the sports programs in the schools. "I guess because of the budget cuts," she said, adding that sports give students a feeling of more "freedom," that helps control discipline problems. "Some kids may have problems at home, and sports is a way for them to [escape]," she said.

Yvonee McCoy brought her five children to Saturday's celebration. She said she has been a resident of Clayton County for almost 20 years. "I have been with this county through all the highs and the lows," said McCoy, "and I'm so very proud of how far the [school system] has come."

She added that she believes this is going to be a "blessed year" for the school system, because she believes teachers in Clayton County will "be about their business" in seeing that students excel.

Deputy Superintendent Phillips said the hope is that people will recognize the district's accreditation status, and as a result, the system will be able to recruit even more qualified teachers. She added that the goals for this year are to surpass the performance benchmarks set out by the state. "We want to make sure that all students are exceptional, and all students are being challenged," she said.

Winning back accreditation is a big positive step for the school system, Phillips said, but "there are still some challenges ... to face.

"We have a new curriculum that is coming up, that we are going to have to implement," she said. "We have to make sure teachers are highly trained, and that they [teachers] are up to par and ready to go."

School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson said Heatley deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done in helping the system regain full accreditation, and thinks he is an important ingredient in the district's continued success. "We plan on keeping him here, even if we have to nail his feet into the ground," she said.