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Editorial: Local schools willing to ‘step back and sling it’
By pushing innovation, education leaders in Gainesville, Hall are getting positive results
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield, left, and Gainesville City School Superintendent Jeremy Williams. - photo by Scott Rogers

It’s a bit too easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize today’s schools for what are perceived as their shortcomings. In a time when education is more important than ever, public schools face mounting challenges: the quest for adequate funding, the struggle to recruit and keep top-level teachers, the growing cultural and socio-economic divides among students, and a litany of exams and other metrics that keep educators under the microscope.

We don’t envy them the challenges they face, and it’s clear local schools deserve and need the community’s support more than its scorn. In that spirit, when judging the Hall County and Gainesville school systems, we should see the glass as more than half full.

Last week it was learned both systems posted their best graduation rates in six years, each topping the overall state average. Gainesville’s rate of 87.8 percent was up 13.4 points, Hall’s rate steady at 83.8 percent, topping the state average every year since 2012.

Another key measure of success, ACT college admission scores, are up in both systems from the previous year. Hall students scored a composite 21.1, up 0.3 from last year; Gainesville students posted a 20.8, almost a full point better. Both rank a bit below the state average of 21.4, up 0.3 overall, but all are moving in the right direction. Among local high schools with the best scores were North Hall (22.3), Flowery Branch (21.9), Chestatee (20.9), Gainesville (20.8) and Johnson (20.6).

It’s another indication that the innovative techniques school districts employ are showing positive results. Students today are attending classes better designed to keep them engaged by focusing on real-world skills they will need as adults.

It’s a bit baffling at times to see such a varied menu, at least to many who came up through school in the era of five or six basic subjects. How many did a double-take at news that Hall’s new high school will offer a class in forensic sciences to aspiring criminal justice students?

But it’s a growth job market for such skills and a way for students to begin a real career path at an earlier age, not after they have run up three years of debt at a liberal arts college without a clear direction.

This innovation is sparked by leadership in both systems that seems determined, from the top down, to be willing to experiment and work in new teaching methods to keep pace.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield has overseen the growth and development of a system that is a source of pride for county residents. The district’s spirit of achievement is reflected in efforts by the school board, principals and individual educators.

Schofield and Gainesville’s new superintendent, Jeremy Williams, sat with reporter Norm Cannada recently for a question-and-answer session featured in this month’s HOME magazine, included in the Oct. 1 edition for print subscribers. They have known each other for years and quickly forged a strong working relationship, and they share the same desire to make their schools shining palaces of success by pushing the envelope where necessary.

“If you compare education to a football game, it’s third down and 27 and we’re still running off tackle,” Schofield said in the HOME article. “The last time I coached football, when it was third down and 27, we’re going to step back and sling it. ... I would think, when we look at our children and see the millions of students who are leaving schools with no diploma and/or no skills and, most importantly, with no hope, I would like to think there are more of us who would say it’s time to step back and sling it. We need to try some things.”

Williams echoed those thoughts: “We don’t know what problems there are going to be 10, 15, 20 years from now, but if we keep teaching kids that it is the same way now that it was 20 or 30 years ago, we’re not preparing our kids for the future.”

Both also spoke at a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce board of directors meeting Thursday and again pitched their promise to not let classrooms stagnate under the weight of archaic thinking.

“The world has changed and I would suggest to you that we had better change,” Schofield said. “The Asian tigers are knocking at our doors; Eastern Europe is waking up; India wants everything you have, And we better start looking for ways to train our children to have the skills and capacities and the character to compete on the worldwide market.”

Williams talked about the cultural challenges his district faces with so many students who are Hispanic (60 percent) and English-language learners (40 percent). Meanwhile, African-American students continue to struggle, some scoring lower on standardized tests than special-needs students, an issue that needs to be addressed more aggressively.

“We need to engage our students,” Williams said. “We need to make sure we’re finding what they love to do. Every kid loves to do something. I can tell you now, it’s not sitting down with a worksheet and filling it out like we could get excited about.”

It’s a different challenge than what he faced in the Union County system, but in just a few months on the job, he has brought a fresh approach and attitude to district leadership. His partnership with Schofield can only help schools in both systems share ideas that work and pool resources when possible to growth both.

Schools face a lot of obstacles, but to return to Schofield’s football metaphor, it starts with having the right coaches. Their zest for innovation should energize principals, teachers and students to keep the scores, grades and success flowing into the challenging future they face. 

Meanwhile, residents who harbor doubts about public education are encouraged to get on board with their efforts and provide the resources and support they need to make it happen.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send 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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