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Schools cope with growing populations
4 of Hall Countys 20 elementary schools are above capacity
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Gainesville Middle School students work on their French lesson Friday morning while teacher Jean Louis Pondo works with the class on a projection screen.

As local school systems continue to grow in population and popularity, accommodating those students becomes exponentially more important.

Since the 2005-2006 school year, Gainesville City Schools’ student population has increased by almost 2,000 students.

With that growth comes the challenge of providing space for those students and, city school officials said, looking ahead to future growth.

“It’s definitely an issue,” Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “The funding for new schools is based on the enrollment you have at the present time.

“Essentially, if you’re growing, which Georgia has grown over the last 25 years, you’re never able to build a school for the number of students you will likely have when you open it, as far as state funding.”

School systems are required to submit facility plans to the state, highlighting their needs based on current population trends and growth estimates.

From those plans, the state will issue funds to build new facilities. The only other option is to fund locally.

“Very, very few systems in Georgia are able to do that,” Dyer said.

Most of the city’s elementary schools are considered overcrowded, with some schools nearly 300 students over capacity.

The middle and high school, Dyer said, are currently stable.

Centennial Arts Academy, which has a capacity of 600 to 650 students, currently hosts more than 930 students.
The current facilities are not conducive to expansion, but school officials said they are working on other ideas to alleviate the problem.

“We have definitely had the need for additional elementary classrooms,” Dyer said. “We’ve shown that as a need, and we continue to.”

A new school at Mundy Mill could relieve some of those issues, but that project will take at least five years to complete.

Another possibility is that when Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School moves into its new facilities next year, Centennial could swap buildings with Wood’s Mill High School.

“The question, really, for our board and our community is Centennial,” Dyer said. “Does Centennial want to hang tight and manage the growth until we can build another elementary school, or does the community look into trading buildings with Wood’s Mill? That’s the biggest decision we’re facing in the next five years.”

While Gainesville looks to address some of its population issues, Hall County Schools officials said, overall, the county’s schools are meeting the needs of the population.

“We’re very fortunate in that we don’t have a lot of overcrowding at this point,” Superintendent Will Schofield said. “We went through a decade where we were picking up about a school population every year and the district was frantically trying to stay ahead the best they could with building new space.”

Four of Hall’s 20 elementary schools are beyond capacity, and four of the county’s six middles schools are just above capacity.

More than half of the high schools are above capacity as well, including the most populated school, Flowery Branch.

As growth has slowed from nearly 1,000 students per year to about 500 to 600 per year, most schools in the county have leveled out. Flowery Branch, however is still seeing a steady increase, mainly due to its proximity to Gwinnett County and a growing South Hall area.

“What doesn’t change though, is that growth always comes in pockets,” said Schofield. “Almost all of our explosive growth is down by the Gwinnett County border ... while the majority of our other high schools have remained fairly stable over the last few years.”

Flowery Branch currently enrolls about 1,700 students, while the school was built to house 1,550.

The school has accommodated the growth with modular classrooms, but Principal Mark Coleman said the growth is likely to continue.

“The growth is not going to stop, especially in our area of the county,” said Coleman. “I think you’ll see that it has stabilized in a lot of the other schools, but in our area, it’s a hotspot.”

He said there have been no concrete plans for the future in South Hall, but said it’s a conversation he’s having with the system. But, again, he said, it’s difficult to keep up when facilities are sort of reactive to student growth.

“A negative in the school business, it’s kind of hard to build buildings until your schools are overcrowded,” said Coleman. “That’s kind of how the funding works with the department of education. You kind of have to show the need before you build.”

Hall plans on adding two new facilities in the future, including the Academies of Discovery in Oakwood.

Gainesville’s school at Mundy Mill is slated for 2017, but until then, renovated modular units will likely provide alleviation for a growing population over the longer term.

Dyer said 12 units have been placed at Wood’s Mill and renovated to better suit classes. The renovation for all 12 cost the system about $32,000.

“So when you look at adding 12 classrooms and what it costs to build with mortar and brick versus updating and renovating a modular, it’s definitely a more cost-effective solution,” Dyer said.

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