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Educators hope to avoid 'loss of learning'
Andre Wade lines up a pool shot while playing with friends at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County. The clubs provide a safe environment when parents are unable to care for their children when school is out of session. - photo by Tom Reed
Furlough days for local schools tend to bring pity on the teachers, but several administrators are focused on what may happen to their students.

"We worry about where our children are going to be," said Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. "Will they be at home by themselves? What will they eat?"

For the 2010-2011 school year, Hall County Schools announced eight furlough days, and Gainesville City Schools announced 10 furlough days to combat the budget crisis. Although the days have been placed near traditional school holidays, school officials know parents will have to find child care while they work.

In a poll taken three years ago, only 14 percent of parents for Gainesville schools stay at home, Dyer said.

"Our children are of the labor force, and many live in federal subsidized housing," Dyer said. "Their parents work at Cargill, Wrigley and Kubota, and we don't want these children to be at home alone or hungry."

With 78 percent of students in the free and reduced lunch program and three schools above 90 percent, Gainesville Schools pulled the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs into the conversation when determining furlough days.

"Gainesville is a business-funded community, and our children are those of the business workers," Dyer said. "It's not as residential-oriented, and when we cut days, we're hurting the ability for their parents to work. We're hurting business productivity."

The furloughs will probably hit elementary school parents the hardest because they need child care, said McEver Arts Academy Principal Catherine Rosa.

"It's really a hardship for parents, and it'll be extra tough for the younger ones," she said. "We have to help them come up with solutions for this issue."

At Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, finding child care is especially tough for parents who are already struggling financially.

"Furloughs have detrimental effects in a lot of ways," said Kim Davis, assistant principal of Fair Street. "The scary thing to me is thinking about the children who are at home unattended in the middle school age. What kinds of things might they get into?"

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County rallied to fill the need, and other groups could, too, she said.

"Maybe the Veterans Outreach and (Gainesville) Parks and (Recreation) can take a bigger role during the school year," Davis said. "We feed between 250 and 350 children a day in the summer when students walk up the hill from the Boys & Girls Club, so it shows how many parents are dependent on help."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County has jumped on board to provide more services, said Chief Professional Officer Joe Ethier.

"We're trying to ensure everyone is on the same page and communicating to achieve the same goals," he said. "We work closely with the schools and help students who don't have alternatives, making sure we provide a safe environment."

Ethier said he understands the reason for furloughs and hopes to help students learn when they aren't in school.

"Any amount of time kids are away from the learning environment will result in a loss of learning, even if it's a low percent of decline in face-to-face interaction," he said. "My hopes are that this is short term for the school system, but we'll try to reinforce what they're learning at school and provide fitness programs to instill character."

Child care centers in the area also are stepping up. Legacy Academy in Oakwood serves Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science, Chestnut Mountain Elementary School, Oakwood Elementary School and the World Language Academy at Chestnut Mountain.

"We're open for drop-ins and haven't raised our rates in two years," said Briana Masters, director of the academy. "We also have financial assistance and programs for different types of families."

The tough part is explaining to parents that there aren't many options, Dyer said.

"Parents will come to me and talk about how important something is, and give evidence and testimony to keep this or that," she said. "But they don't have to convince me. I want it, too. The money is just not there."

Although there was initial grumbling about conserving energy by removing coffee pots from schools or limiting field trips, everyone embraces the changes now.

"People were upset at first that athletic teams had to ride together on the same bus," Dyer said. "But they appreciate it now that it has made a difference and saved a few teachers."

The extra time out of class is a time for the parents to get involved, Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

"For too long, schools have looked like brick and mortar buildings, but parents are the primary educators, and it's important that they see themselves that way," he said. "It's not just another day off."

Especially with the tools of technology and online resources, the schools can post supplementary materials online. Schofield also suggested book programs.

"Let your mind go wandering by reading, as (Ralph Waldo) Emerson said, instead of watching HBO and eating chips," he said. "Parents need to do what they can to give their children a meaningful experience."

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