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Editorial: Schools race to keep pace with growth
In a changing world of education, district leaders must predict, prepare for population surges

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Sorry kids, it’s already time to say goodbye to summer. The calendar may say July, but it’s time to head back to school over the next week for Gainesville and Hall County students.

Many from their parents’ generation and older still shake their heads at the early start to classes, truncating summer fun just when it gets going good. But that’s not the only thing different in schools today compared to years gone by.

Once there were elementary, middle and high schools, staffed by teachers who used dusty textbooks to impart knowledge on math, science, geography, history and English. In its day, they served everyone well.

Now English is language arts; geography and history are social or international studies; and math and science are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The menu now available to bright young minds goes well beyond Dick and Jane books, memorizing state capitals and multiplication tables, and dissecting frogs.

Today’s schools are labeled academies of arts, knowledge, exploration, multiple intelligences and international baccalaureate, with programs that offer targeted curricula based on students’ interests and skills. They use high-tech methods taught by instructors highly trained and finely tuned in the nuances of modern learning. And through dual enrollment and advanced placement classes, high achievers approaching graduation can get an early leg up in college.

Schools once were quaint icons of childhood, stopovers in the rites of passage. Now they occupy the front lines in the effort to train the next generation of workers, thinkers and leaders.

The other thing that has changed, especially here in Gainesville and Hall, is a population explosion that  makes it a challenge to keep pace. Today’s school superintendents must be soothsayers peeking into their crystal balls to predict what’s coming years down the road. Because by the time it arrives, it’s too late.

Case in point: The new Mundy Mill Academy elementary school that opens this fall, the sixth in the city’s district. The school was first envisioned nearly a decade ago when a developer unveiled plans for a massive new subdivision south of Gainesville that would include more than 1,100 homes and another 1,000 or so townhomes and apartments. City officials scrambled to develop plans for a new school to accommodate the expected flood of young students that would follow.

Then the recession hit, the housing market crashed, the property faced foreclosure and was passed on to new owners. Only a few dozen homes were built, others left half-finished, some as bare foundations covered in weeds.

Now with the economy again in the pink and more modest plans to develop the site, the school again became a necessity, and is now a reality. When it opens this week, it can hold 750 students, and can expand to 1,000 if area growth takes off. This is the kind of flexibility school systems need to stay a short step ahead.

Hall County has had to face the same adjustment in booming South Hall, where new elementary and high schools are planned for next fall to handle a residential population again on the rise. To manage this without massive construction costs, Flowery Branch High, Davis Middle and South Hall Middle will all shift back to their original buildings, with the current Flowery Branch High to be used for the new schools.

This is the challenge districts face in trying to anticipate student growth, the kind seen in suburban Atlanta counties in the 1960s through the ’90s. Decisions need to be made five, seven, 10 years in advance so there’s enough time to find and purchase land, implement redistricting plans, build the facilities and infrastructure and recruit faculty and staff, all to be ready when the first bell rings. Guess wrong and one school here might be half full while others overflow into trailers on the baseball field. It’s an imperfect science unto itself.

The other variable for area schools is not knowing exactly how many immigrant students will show up when classes begin. The migrant Latino population in Hall has surged and waned based on economic factors, leaving schools unable to gauge how many they’ll get and how many English-language teachers will be needed to work with them.

According to Census Bureau data, the number of Hispanic students in the county rose by more than 2,700 to 17,556 from 2012 to 2015, while Gainesville's number increased by more than 1,000 in that span. What that total will be this fall is impossible to know until they settle into their desks.

Then add in students with special needs, those who qualify for free lunches, many who face challenges at home and some who don’t have permanent homes at all. Schools must plan for buses and transportation needs, traffic patterns and other logistics based on all those numbers.

This is the Rubik’s cube school leaders must solve, all while working to send kids into the world fully prepared after 13 years. It’s a difficult job under the best of circumstances that gets more complex over time, making the simple classrooms from bygone days seem obsolete in retrospect.

For those reasons and more, we salute the efforts of school leaders who eagerly accept this heroic task. They deserve our respect, gratitude and support, and we wish all teachers, staff, students and parents a school year of successful achievement.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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