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New student Success Center one of many positive changes for Gainesville City Schools
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Students work in the media center, which will become a part of the part of the upcoming Student Success Center, at Gainesville High School on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The center will connect students with academic mentors; behavioral and mental health support; college and career activities; and assist with providing basic needs through additions like a food pantry and clothing closet. - photo by Austin Steele

Officials with Gainesville City Schools are serving the academic health of students with a major services initiative that, after a year or more of planning, is beginning to come to fruition.

“Sometimes you have a vision, but you don’t have all the details yet,” Superintendent Jeremy Williams said.

A new Student Success Center will open on the Gainesville High campus in the 2019-20 school year, and its mission is to “wraparound” students with services including: mentors, behavioral and mental health support, college and career activities as well as a food pantry and clothing closet. A food pantry is also available at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.

“It’s going to be a pretty big undertaking,” Williams said.

Jeremy Williams --NEW
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams

Other key components of the initiative include youth mental health first aid training, which gives teachers and administrators the tools to identify students in need and connect them with resources.

It also includes a nearly $3 million literacy grant program, which entails distributing books to local barber shops where kids and families are encouraged to read.

For many educators, “wraparound” services come part and parcel with improved safety and security in schools by providing additional counseling and support for basic needs.

Each public school in the state is poised to receive $30,000 to improve security measures on campuses after the Georgia House of Representatives approved a mid-year budget adjustment on Feb. 8.

Lawmakers OK’d spending $192 million more for the current 2019 fiscal year thanks to better-than-expected revenues, and the funding also supports ongoing disaster relief efforts in South Georgia for farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael last fall.

The one-time allocation adds up to about $70 million for Georgia’s 2,294 public schools.

But other state funding has given Gainesville City Schools about $240,000 for all security upgrades at the district’s six elementary schools, middle and high school.

Williams said the school district is in the process of installing card readers on nearly every exterior door, while also looking to furnish all main school offices with lockdown technology and buzzers to allow visitors in and out.

Williams said a particular focus of upgrades was being directed at local elementary schools and Gainesville Middle.

And improvements to the expansive Gainesville High campus, such as monitoring access from the many points of entry, will also be a focus requiring some of this new funding, Williams said.

“We’ll be looking at solutions like closing down those buildings during class,” he added.

In the last year, Gainesville City Schools has successfully implemented other initiatives, such as a minority teacher recruitment plan. Its first cohort this year includes former Gainesville High graduates and current paraprofessionals. 

“It’s a good range and a diverse staff that reflects our population and will help us serve the future,” Williams said. 

And the expansion of Pre-K to all elementary schools this academic year has been so successful that additional classes are likely next year as waiting lists grow longer, Williams said.

Meanwhile, a major focus over the next 12 months will be selling the voting public on a new round of the special purpose local option sales tax to fund the expansion of schools and facilities.

A second middle school, a junior high school for eighth- and ninth-graders, and a second high school for the Gainesville City School System have been identified by parents and teachers as some of the biggest spending priorities if voters approve a new round of the one-penny sales tax in November 2020.

The current E-SPLOST, which was approved in 2015 with 74 percent of voter support, is projected to bring in $6 million to $7 million annually for Gainesville City Schools over the five-year life of the tax (until 2022). The first collections began last fall.

The school system has allocated this revenue to pay off construction of the Mundy Mill Academy and new Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, among other things.

The “One Gainesville” concept, in which students from six elementary schools funnel into one middle and one high school in the Red Elephant universe, is a point of pride and tradition for the community.

Gainesville Middle has an enrollment of about 1,850 students. Gainesville High has an enrollment of about 2,150 students.

And the prospect of adding another middle or high school has many implications, some good and some potentially problematic.

For example, adding one of each could open more opportunities for students to participate in sports and school clubs that are currently limited in size.

Then again, it may mean that Gainesville has middle and high schools competing against one another.

A junior high may be a compromise, but it may not be the best solution long term. All that remains to be decided.

Williams said meetings with governance councils, board members and other stakeholders will be held in April as well as follow-ups with the public who participated in “listening sessions” about the E-SPLOST campaign last fall.

Additional E-SPLOST projects could include developing full-size gymnasiums at three elementary schools: Centennial Arts Academy, Gainesville Exploration Academy and New Holland Knowledge Academy. 

“Our target is to have our core plan (and project list) a year before the vote,” Williams said.