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Districts shift to make room for more students
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Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy teachers and staff members enter the cafeteria of the new school Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, during a tour of the new school still under construction. - photo by Scott Rogers

Residential growth across Gainesville and Hall County has had major impacts on local school districts in the past year, and leaves top administrators continually looking for ways to absorb these changes as student demands evolve.

The Gainesville City School System opened the new Mundy Mill Academy at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, the sixth elementary school in the district.

And Hall County Schools finalized plans to open the Cherokee Bluff middle and high schools in South Hall this coming fall.

Gainesville City Schools

In February, the Gainesville City Schools Board of Education unanimously approved changes to attendance zones and OK’d plans to expand Pre-K to all elementary schools beginning this fall.

Gainesville will now limit school choice in an effort to balance attendance at city schools and provide pre-K at each school, not just New Holland Knowledge Academy.

Parents could previously choose which elementary school their child attends, with the exception of the new Mundy Mill Academy.

Under the newly approved proposal, Gainesville’s elementary schools would be divided into two clusters, with parents choosing their child’s school within that cluster.

One cluster would include Centennial, Fair Street, New Holland and Enota elementary schools. The other would include Mundy Mill and Gainesville elementary schools.

If parents choose to send their child to a school outside of their cluster, they will be required to provide their own transportation.

About 12 percent of students will not attend their current school under the changes.

To make this work, school officials are also redrawing attendance zones for each individual school to level enrollment.

Williams said this will help the school system prepare and respond to future enrollment growth.

Meanwhile, teachers and staff got their first look in February at the inside of the new Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, a $19 million project that tore down the old elementary school and built a two-story, 129,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on the same grounds.

Construction workers are literally and figuratively sanding the edges now.

“They are definitely on schedule ... may finish a little early,” Adrian Niles, school system chief operations officer, said.

A full gym, media center, performing arts space, art exhibit hall and other amenities are additions the former school never had.

David Presnell, the system’s field services manager who has helped oversee the construction, said asphalt still has to be poured, landscaping will come in the spring and play areas will be fully developed.

But then it’s on to moving in furniture, hanging fixtures, and addressing “punch-out” items like installing wall sockets. That should all occur no later than June, Presnell said.

Several features from the old school that have sentimental or historical value have been kept and will be put in place at the new Enota school, including the original front doors and the relic mini-water tower from the old school garden.

Looking forward, Williams said the school system is considering phasing out several buildings at the Gainesville High campus because it has become more expensive to renovate them than to tear them down and rebuild.

In addition, the system may begin considering the viability of a career academy, Williams said, or a transition school for ninth- and 10th-graders to alleviate capacity at the high school. In addition, a new high school may be needed several years from now.

Williams and Board of Education members also will be looking over the next year at providing relief to Gainesville Middle School, which is close to exceeding capacity.

“We’re getting to the point where we have to think about a sixth-grade academy or new middle school,” he added.

Hall County Schools

With the mascot and colors for the Cherokee Bluff middle and high school opening in South Hall this fall now unveiled, the purple, silver and white Bears are ready to roll.

Hall County has been busy hiring top positions for the new schools, including Principal Wes McGee for the high school; athletic director Kenny Hill; Tommy Jones, the former Dacula football coach, to lead the pigskin program; and Robert Wilson, former principal of Lyman Hall Elementary, will be the first principal of the middle school. 

The new middle and high schools, which will be located in the current Flowery Branch High building on Spout Springs Road, are designed to help relieve crowded conditions in South Hall.

Flowery Branch High will move back to its former building where Davis Middle School is now located, and Davis will move back to its former home where South Hall Middle resides. South Hall is moving back to its original location at the Academies of Discovery.

The new school name is derived from Cherokee Bluffs Park, a 168-acre park that opened in November 2015 on Blackjack Road in Flowery Branch near the Sterling on the Lake community.

Meanwhile, Hall County school officials are looking to reverse a lingering result of the Great Recession by bringing fifth-grade World Language Academy students back into an elementary school environment this fall.

During the worst of the economic downturn — when housing markets were bursting and banks collapsing — school officials paired World Language Academy fifth-graders with the sixth- through eighth-grade program located within the Academies of Discovery campus on Poplar Springs Road in South Hall.

The move for the fifth-grade class from the World Language campus at Chestnut Mountain thrust kids into a young adult setting for the sake of easing overcrowding.

World Language at Chestnut Mountain was “busting at the seams,” Superintendent Will Schofield said.

And when the old South Hall Middle School was renovated to host the Da Vinci Academy, for example, it became the obvious, viable option to place the fifth-grade learners.

In the long run, however, “It hurt WLA programmatically because K-5 (grades) need to be together,” Schofield said. “It was never what was best.”

Space remains limited at the elementary World Language Academy, and Schofield said officials are working to establish state-of-the-art modular units to handle the influx of fifth-graders back to the Chestnut Mountain campus.

The move also allows the Academies of Discovery campus room to grow by easing current near-capacity attendance.

Looking out a few years, Schofield said it is difficult to predict just how much student enrollment will grow.

Hall County has one of the most populous first-generation immigrant communities in the state, and the number of immigrant students has fluctuated wildly in recent years, Schofield said.

“Hall County is so different,” he added. “You just didn’t know from one year to the next.”

Hall County also has to manage annexations from the city of Gainesville and Buford, which have their own school districts.

A longstanding agreement that kept funding and students flowing to Hall County schools even when the city of Gainesville annexed unincorporated county property is coming to an end.

The result could leave an estimated 150 students and their families switching school districts after the agreement expires this October, Schofield said.

The expiration of the current agreement between school districts, for example, would cost Hall County schools some $600,000 in tax revenue, according to Schofield.

In a statement, Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said he “respects the position of Hall County School System regarding their displeasure with the expiring tax-sharing agreement.”

“Both school districts, Gainesville City and Hall County, currently allow students to attend via tuition and offer district-wide school choice,” Williams added. “I look forward to working with current and new Gainesville City families as we tailor services to best serve their children and prepare them for the future.”

At any rate, Schofield said he expects to see continued student growth in North Hall as commercial and residential development continues to expand there.

“I have continued to say the real sleeping giant ... is the Ga. 365 corridor,” he added.

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