By Jason A. Smith
Education was the focus for more than 70 community leaders, who gathered to kick off a long-range project aimed at improving Henry County's public school system.
Members of the Ready by 21 Task Force met Friday at the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, to discuss how education fits into the county's economic strategy. Ready by 21 is an initiative designed to prepare students for the future, through the year 2021, according to Chamber President Kay Pippin.
"It is an effort to help catapult an already good school system, to an excellent school system in this community," she said. "We now have more than five higher-education institutions in Henry County, and we are, hopefully, going to be opening a new technical school in the very near future. We are assuring that all of our residents understand the educational opportunities, and that they are maximizing those opportunities. We understand that a school system can't, in and of itself, do that job alone."
The task force consists of individuals representing county and city governments in Henry, the board of education, the development authority, the water authority and the business and health-care communities. Pippin added that the initiative is part of a comprehensive plan to expand educational opportunities for the 41,000 students in the county's school system. She said Henry is on its way to "becoming the education hub of the Southern Crescent."
"Public schools ... are America's answer to an educated citizenry," Pippin said. "We lose track of the fact, sometimes, of what an amazing social experiment it is. We want to make education a centerpiece, a targeted market for the Henry County community."
The Chamber president said the task force will work to uncover ways to increase the county's graduation rate, which currently stands at 82 percent. "We want to have a 100 percent graduation rate by 2021," she explained. "That means children entering first grade this year, when they come out on the other end, everybody walks for a diploma."
Pippin said the task force will also focus on securing a technical college, locally. "We are the largest population in the state of Georgia that doesn't have its own technical college," she said.
Another focus, she said, will be to examine where Henry ranks among Georgia's public school systems, and help the community achieve Work Ready certification, to accompany their diplomas.
The group will employ a series of strategies to, hopefully, help increase students' scores on Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, as well as SAT Reasoning Tests and other standardized forms of testing, she said.
"You're going to be able to grade the school system on its progress, on all of these very important academic tests," she said. "We understand tests don't tell the whole story, but they are a reality of the day, and every school system in America is being graded on test scores. We want to broaden the community's understanding of what these tests do, and we want to help the school system make their goals, right on up to 2021."
Dr. Ethan Hildreth, superintendent of Henry County Schools, was in attendance for the Ready by 21 session. He said one reason the initiative is "significant," is because of the emphasis it places on students' becoming involved in leadership opportunities.
"Sometimes, we think about education as preparing students to be productive community members in the future," Hildreth said. "We have to remember that these students can be, and should be, productive community members now. We do that by giving them those opportunities, not only in school, but in the workforce or wherever we're encountering the students."
Brian Preston, chairman of the Henry County Board of Education, is serving as a Task Force leader for Ready by 21. He reminded his fellow members of the need for students to be educated about the benefits of dual enrollment in high school and college. "Your kids, the students, get to go to college while they're in high school, and it's all paid for," he said. "Think about that, in these economic times."
Preston said the task force will also focus on improving school readiness for children, before they enter kindergarten. The group's public-relations committee, he added, will carry the responsibility of educating the community about Ready by 21.
June Wood, a Chamber Education Committee Chairman and a Ready by 21 Task Force leader, described Henry County as a "trailblazer," for its efforts in the Ready by 21 initiative. "There are already individuals calling to be part of what's going on," said Wood. She added that the task force will be asked, by July 22, to submit a list of county-wide recommendations, for how to improve local schools.