Preparing Staff & Students for Safe SchoolsPosted by Judy Gilreath on 3/1/2018
The recent Florida shooting incident and the situation that happened recently in our own area rekindled feelings of fear throughout our community and across America. Episodes like this remind us that school shootings and other acts of violence are very real possibilities in any school district. School violence is coming too often, and nothing touches our hearts more than when our children's lives are endangered.
Parents and school officials are searching for ways to keep our students safe. State legislators continue to discuss and weigh the pros and cons of arming teachers and/or administrators in every school. Each new incident of a school intruder brings calls and questions from Whitfield County parents who want to make sure we are doing all we can to protect our children.
School Resource Officers (SRO's) are an effective measure to increase school safety. We currently have five deputies from the Sheriff's office working in our schools. A worthy goal would be to have one in each school all day, but current budget restraints do not allow us to do so.
School administrators spend countless hours refining school safety plans each year, attempting to include every conceivable threat from tornadoes to intruders. They try to anticipate many situations and carefully plan a response for each scenario. These plans are reviewed by local emergency management officials, as well as state authorities.
Being proactive is one of the simplest and most important ways to safeguard our students. Our teachers and maintenance employees are trained to observe the normal physical environment to recognize if something is out of place or identify objects that are not ordinarily in the room or on school property. For example, should we receive a bomb threat in one of our schools our maintenance personnel as well as law enforcement officers are immediately sent to the school to survey the building and look for unusual items. Each school has staff members designated to perform certain duties in case of an emergency, and an off-site reunification location is identified for the possibility of evacuating students. A central-level team comprised of school representatives meets regularly to talk about emergencies and receive training on what to look for and how to deter problems.
Teachers and students talk about how to be aware of what goes on around them. Law enforcement training includes putting officers through scenarios where there is a shooter in the school. I have personally observed this realistic training and have confidence in our local law enforcement officers and their ability to handle such an emergency situation. This was recently demonstrated by the officers and emergency personnel who responded to the situation at Dalton High School.
ESPLOST funds have been used to put equipment in place to better protect our children and staff. Every Whitfield County School has keyless door access for heightened security. This technology allows school personnel to enter the school without using a key. This is especially useful in elementary schools where teachers take children to recess and re-enter the building without having to prop doors open. It allows schools to keep exterior doors locked, requiring guests to enter the building through a secure vestibule where they can be observed and screened by office personnel before gaining access to the school. Security cameras have been installed allowing administrators and SRO's to monitor schools and grounds 24 hours a day from their computers. These cameras store several weeks of video footage that can be reviewed should a problem arise. All school buses have been equipped with security cameras that record video with sound. This equipment helps monitor the safety of students while they're on the bus.
In an emergency, we can reach parents in minutes by phone, text, or our mass notification system. Parents can help by monitoring social media and reporting any posted threats to the school or to the Sheriff's Department. Reposting on social media just spreads the fear and does nothing to help prevent events. Most threats are unfounded rumors but they are all investigated. We are diligent in working with law enforcement to check out reported threats.
While nobody can predict where or how a school emergency may occur, we remain alert to the possibility, plan and train for emergency situations, and put equipment and personnel in place to safeguard our students. Student safety remains our primary concern in Whitfield County Schools.
Good things happen when parents, teachers believe in childrenPosted by Judy Gilreath on 12/1/2017
When my oldest child began kindergarten, I was sure he was the brightest 5-year-old boy who ever entered the door of his elementary school. I knew that he would be at the head of his class. I can still remember my conversation with his teacher during our first parent/teacher conference when she informed his dad and me that although our child was learning, respectful, and got along well with the other children, he was very young and immature (he was barely 5).
The teacher suggested he probably would have benefited from another year at home before entering school. I was sure she had no concept of a gifted child’s characteristics. I was still working on my first degree in education and had no experience teaching 5-year-olds. Even though his teacher had 25 years of experience teaching kindergarten, I felt sure she was wrong about my son!
After having my own classroom, I realized my son’s teacher had been right. He was a very bright child, but he was immature and his talents still needed some time to develop. One thing I noticed, however, was even though his kindergarten teacher told me he was not quite ready for kindergarten, she treated him as if he was the brightest student in her class. She encouraged him to try new things, to believe in himself and never failed to tell him how smart he was.
She talked to my son about the great things he was going to do when he grew up. She encouraged him to write stories and draw pictures about what he wanted to be and the adventures he wanted to have. She showed him the magic of the written word and instilled in him a love for reading. Though she had told me that he was not ready for the gifted class, she taught him as if he was gifted. That is how she treated every child in her class. She taught her students as if each of them was gifted. She told them all how smart they were and they all believed her and responded as gifted children.
My son’s kindergarten teacher taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson that I tried to use every year I was in the classroom. On the first day of each new school year, I would tell my students they were special and would let them know how excited I was to have each one of them in my class because they were so smart.
As a classroom teacher, I remembered my experiences as parents would often tell me they just knew their children were gifted. Sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t. The important thing was the parents thought their child was gifted. When parents believe in their children, tell them how smart they are, spend quality time with them and love them, they will blossom. Couple loving parents with a caring teacher and children will often surpass everyone’s expectations.
The opposite is also true. After 25 years, I still remember a child in my first-grade classroom who told me during the first week of school that he could not read. When I tried to assure him that he didn’t know how to read yet, but he would soon learn, he responded “I can’t learn to read because my mother says I am stupid.” Despite my best efforts, Daniel was still struggling with reading at the end of the year. One reason he didn’t make the progress he could have was because his mother planted the idea in his developing mind that he was not as smart as other children. I moved from that county and don’t know what happened to Daniel. I feel confident that unless someone showed they believed he was smart and could learn to read, he never learned to read well.
Every child deserves to have an adult, preferably a parent, tell him every day how smart he is, how proud they are of him and that he is loved. Every child deserves a teacher who believes in him, plans challenging work for him, demonstrates why his lessons are important and sets high expectations for him and his classmates. Every child deserves a home and school environment that is physically and emotionally safe and supportive. Every child deserves to be challenged academically. My goal is for every Whitfield County student to learn from a teacher who believes all children are gifted, because every child is a gift.
My vision for our studentsPosted by Judy Gilreath on 11/1/2017
As educators, we know schools cannot be run like businesses. Although business and education differ in many ways, they share the need for a focused vision. Businessmen and educators alike must have a vivid picture in their minds of what their organizations will look like when they reach their goals.
No matter what we try to accomplish in life, we need a road map showing where we want to go, how to get there and how to know we have arrived. System leaders for Whitfield County Schools defined the following vision in our Five-Year Strategic Plan: "We envision a valued and dynamic school district that prepares students for success in a global community."
My vision as superintendent is more personal. It is important to me for our system as a whole to attain high levels of achievement. I also feel a responsibility to see each individual student reach his or her maximum potential. I want all students who enroll in our system to graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue whatever career they choose. I also want every student, no matter his or her background, ethnicity or socioeconomic level, to be treated with respect and appreciated for his many talents. Every student must be given the opportunity to learn and grow both academically and socially.
Last school year we celebrated the accomplishments of 889 graduates. That means we graduated 82.5 percent of the students who began their high school journey together. We commend our teachers and parents for helping students exceed the state graduation rate of 80.6 percent.
However, the class of 2017 began with 1,057 students in its freshman class. I can't help but be concerned about the 168 students who, for whatever reason, did not complete high school and receive their diplomas. I am concerned because each of these students represents a future family that will struggle to provide the material resources they will need in life. These individuals are more likely to work at a minimum wage job because of their decision to drop out of school.
Statistics indicate that a high school dropout will face a higher rate of unemployment and earn significantly less than a high school graduate. I am extremely proud that our system's graduation rate is greater than the state's rate, but the fact that we have any students who drop out is troubling because of the long-range consequences of their decision.
Because we are determined to graduate all of our students, we decided to place a graduation coach in each of our high schools this year. These coaches will work closely with students identified as being at risk. They will seek ways to eliminate obstacles that could cause these students to drop out of school. They will also work closely with school counselors to provide the resources and support needed to help these students graduate. The graduation coach's sole mission is to help students graduate through mentoring, advising and encouraging.
As superintendent, I am determined to hire only the best teachers and administrators to work with our students. Every child deserves a quality education that can only be delivered by teachers who are knowledge experts who care about their students. Every activity in school must revolve around what is best for the students.
Yes, my vision is personal. I firmly believe every child has special talents. As educators, we have the exciting opportunity to discover those talents and help students develop their skills. To achieve our vision, we must prepare every student for what lies ahead and that begins with earning a high school diploma.
Teen Maze Makes a DifferencePosted by Judy Gilreath on 10/1/2017
Much has changed through the years, but one thing that remains the same is that teenagers too often think they are invincible.
They sometimes believe that nothing bad could ever happen to them. This false feeling of invincibility leads some teens to choose to ignore the cautions they receive from teachers, parents, and law enforcement about the deadly consequences of experimenting with risky behaviors such as drugs, texting while driving, sexual behaviors and drinking.
It’s as if they think that bad things always happen to the other person, but never to themselves.
Last week, the Dalton/Whitfield and Murray Family Connections, in partnership with Dalton Public Schools, Murray County Schools and Whitfield County Schools, endeavored to show approximately 2,000 high school sophomores the realities and possible consequences of choosing to indulge in risky practices. The danger of reckless behaviors was brought home in a dramatic and emotionally stirring way as the young people participated in a live action drama called Teen Maze. Students engaged in scenarios to illustrate the consequences of the poor choices they could make as they encounter various situations every day in their lives.
Teen Maze is a realistic, educational, creative and safe way to experience the hardships of making the wrong choices and the joy of making the right choices when faced with difficult decisions. In these scenarios, students do not get to choose their circumstances. Their experiences are randomly assigned. Some will enjoy smooth sailing as they go through their make-believe life. They won’t encounter the hardships that others in their class may face.
At this past week’s Maze, some students were involved in a car wreck caused by driving while intoxicated. Others were presented with a teen pregnancy because of making the wrong decision about sexual involvement. Some students committed various degrees of crime that led them to incarceration or other legal problems. Whatever their challenge, they had to accept the consequences of their choices.
The ultimate goal for each of these teens was for them to navigate through the maze of life and end their high school career with a diploma. The entire experience was designed to show teens that they will face difficulties in life and that the choices they make can change the entire direction of their future. Throughout the event these scenarios helped students learn the importance of accepting personal responsibility and the consequences of poor choices.
This event could not have taken place without approximately 200 adult volunteers each day. Firemen, policemen, hospital personnel, counselors, social workers and other community members, who care about making a difference in the lives of our youth, worked tirelessly with smiles on their faces for five days. I have seen some of the same faithful volunteers for each of the five years that this event has been held in Whitfield County.
We may never know how many young people were saved from making dangerous decisions because of what they learned at Teen Maze. If only one is prevented from going down the wrong path, I’m sure every one of the volunteers would say all of their hard work was worth it.
Great leaders help students, schools shinePosted by Judy Gilreath on 9/1/2017
Few people would argue that excellent schools with high student achievement cannot exist without excellent teachers. I also maintain (and research supports) that great schools and high student achievement cannot exist without great leaders who enable and support teachers and students.
In education, we often see the majority of professional development time and dollars invested in developing excellent teachers. On the other hand, less attention and funding are given to growing strong administrators, particularly principals and assistant principals. A lack of attention to this area limits the achievement potential of students and schools. Even the strongest school system will deteriorate as administrators retire and leave the school system without capable and trained individuals ready to step into their place.
The possibility of this happening in Whitfield County Schools hit home with me last spring when I surveyed our existing administrators. I found almost half of them could retire within five years. We hope many will not choose to retire within that short time, but to ensure that our school system remains strong, we must begin now to prepare tomorrow's principals and assistant principals. That is why we began the Aspiring Leaders Academy last month. This is an intensive leadership development program designed to prepare teachers who have indicated a desire to fill the role of school administrator.
More than 60 candidates went through an extensive application process that included written essays and personal interviews. The 21 successful applicants will meet one Saturday each month throughout this school year. They will closely examine and work toward developing the attributes, knowledge, behaviors and priorities required to become effective school administrators.
The demands put on principals are enormous in today's world. They are expected to be instructional leaders, visionaries, disciplinarians and budget experts, while maintaining an extensive knowledge of current curriculum and assessments, as well as local, state and federal educational regulations and policies. They must possess excellent people skills and be outstanding communicators. These leaders are expected to represent their schools at community events and put in countless hours before and after the regular school day. The administrators at the high school and middle school levels have responsibilities at many after-school athletic and academic student events. Elementary principals have evening hours dedicated to parent meetings, concerts and programs.
School administrators must be high energy and not easily discouraged. Principals are expected to motivate and encourage teachers to do their best teaching, motivate students to be actively involved in their best learning and keep themselves motivated to lead their staff toward the common goal of educating children to their highest potential. School administrators must be thick-skinned so the many criticisms they hear will not deter them from the goal of high student achievement. It is a high-stress job and good principals learn quickly they cannot please everyone. Their decisions must be based on what is best for their students, not what is best for adults. During an average day, these leaders must face many challenges and learn to calmly put out fires while everything inside tells them to yell "fire" and evacuate.
We are thankful for the educators in our system who are ready to take on the challenge despite the many demands of the job of school administrator. These 21 aspiring leaders will be spending the next few months learning and preparing to take the helm of leadership in Whitfield County Schools. Leading as a school principal is demanding work and sometimes frustrating, but I can say from experience that being a school administrator is one of the most rewarding occupations a person can have.
Cooperative learning has changed educationPosted by Judy Gilreath on 8/1/2017
Those who have not visited a classroom for a few years will probably find there have been many changes since they were in school. Children today are very different from children of 20 years ago. Because students learn differently, teachers have changed their strategies and methods of teaching to reach their students.
In most classrooms of yesteryear, a teacher would be standing at the front of the classroom with students sitting in desks arranged in straight rows. Each student would more than likely have a textbook open while using a No. 2 pencil to complete a worksheet. Older students might listen to their teacher's lecture while taking notes of facts they may later be asked to recite in order to receive a passing grade.
There was little if any conversation among students. If there was conversation, teachers would quickly tell students to be quiet and do their work. Everyone back then knew students needed a quiet environment to learn. Good teachers would seldom allow students to work together as partners or in groups because this would give students the opportunity to cheat and copy each other's work. Teachers did not worry about connecting the learning in the classroom with real-life experiences.
In today's classroom, students use fewer textbooks. Information is changing so rapidly that textbooks are out of date before they are even published. Instead, you will find students and teachers using interactive white boards and computers to research information. Instead of reading a book about life in another country, they can actually talk to other young people who live in the part of the world they are studying. They can ask questions and carry on a conversation as if they are all in the same room.
The teacher in schools today is directing the learning, but not dispensing facts. Students are given the tools they need to find information and are asked to explain their research to others. Students work together in groups, discussing and questioning each other while using computers to find facts that help them solve the problems presented to them. The neat rows of desks are often replaced with seating at tables or desks arranged to encourage conversation and collaborative work. The classroom is definitely not quiet because students are talking, laughing, and more importantly, enjoying learning.
Cooperative learning in groups has been around in limited use for as long as there has been public education, but its value has only been realized during the last few years. Teachers find that cooperative learning boosts their students' self-esteem, improves academic achievement and develops their social skills to higher levels. Students become self-motivated and develop more positive attitudes toward school. Students learn that they need one another to succeed at the task or to accomplish the desired goal.
Some students do not come to school with the collaborative or social skills they need to succeed, so these "soft skills" must be taught and practiced. These types of lessons require more planning from teachers, but teachers know how important it is for students to have opportunities to develop these social skills. These skills are needed for our students to be successful in life during and after school. Most careers require employees to work with others.
Teachers work diligently to support their students by providing a safe climate in the classroom that encourages learners to take risks. They want their students to feel that they belong, that they are valued, and that they have some choice and control over their own learning. Working together in cooperative groups is one way teachers in Whitfield County Schools help students grow to love learning and want to continue to learn even after they graduate.
Partnership with Dalton State benefits teachers, elementary studentsPosted by Judy Gilreath on 7/1/2017
Whitfield County Schools and Dalton State College's School of Education have once again partnered with a new project designed to develop additional literacy skills for the elementary students in the county, as well as develop skills in teaching literacy for the pre-service teachers from the college. The following article was submitted by Sharon Hixson, dean of education at Dalton State College.
"Dr. Jacquelyn Mesco teaches a children's literature class every summer and she has often lamented that teaching the course in the summer is somewhat problematic because schools are out of session and the pre-service teachers learn about using different genres of children's literature to build fluency, comprehension, and writing skills, but they do not get the immediate opportunity of practicing these newly learned skills with children.
Mesco generated an idea of Summer Literacy Camps and Whitfield County Schools quickly began to work to recruit students who would benefit from this additional literacy work in the summer.
"I wanted to provide a place for my students to practice teaching with actual students. The work is more meaningful when kids are involved," Mesco said. Hixson was also eager to support this endeavor. "I am always excited to support innovative ideas that will help our community combat the loss of literacy skills that often takes place for many children during the summer."
Because this work was connected to a course already required by the teaching program, the camps are offered for several hours each day for eight days without any cost to parents.
"In Summer Literacy Camps, the pre-service teachers spend the first few weeks of their summer reading courses learning about the different genres of children's literature. Then, each teacher candidate is paired with a student or two for intensive literacy work. Each lesson starts with a read-aloud of a book from one of the genres under study (including poetry, non-fiction, historical fiction, picture books, and so forth).
Next, elementary students practice reading fluency by participating in readers' theater. Readers' theater is similar to practicing parts for a play. Fluency work often requires students to re-read familiar passages over and over; students do not always find this method for developing fluency engaging. In readers' theater, students get to practice re-reading using a variety of silly voices that make the work very engaging.
"Readers' theater is one of my favorite tools to use in the classroom," Mesco said. "Students love the opportunity to perform and they build reading fluency and confidence at the same time."
Each day, the elementary students participated in writing activities that related to or built off the genre under discussion.
Teacher candidates found this method of learning beneficial to their future practice. The pre-service teachers felt that one benefit of this method for their summer coursework was that they had Mesco available to model strategies and methods for them. Additionally, the pre-service teachers learned that everything did not always go as planned. They liked that they were able to brainstorm solutions autonomously while they had Mesco to coach them, if needed.
"A few weeks ago, one of these literacy camps took place at Eastside and over 40 children attended. One is set to begin at Dug Gap in a few days. They have over 60 kids who have chosen to attend this literacy camp. As the camp was ending at Eastside, children were disappointed and expressed that they wished it would continue."
Our community believes in supporting early literacy. Whitfield County Schools believes that this partnership with Dalton State College will not only produce stronger teachers, but will also make a difference in the lives of our children.
Opening DayPosted by Judy Gilreath on 8/1/2013
Originally published August 2013
Over the next few days, millions of America’s children will return to school to begin or continue on their educational journey toward graduation and a successful career. Approximately 13,000 of these students are enrolled in Whitfield County Schools. The majority of them are excited to see their friends and visit their previous teachers. They are eager to learn the many new things that the coming school year holds for them. The beginning of a new school year is not just exciting for students. Teachers are also enthusiastic and have been busy planning learning opportunities for their students. Many teachers have taken classes this summer to strengthen their skills and better prepare themselves to teach their students. Administrators are making sure their buildings are ready, schedules are finished, and teachers have the resources they need to begin the year.
The sounds of children’s laughter and the smiles of teachers who seemed glad to be back from their summer break greeted me as I visited our elementary schools on the first day this year. The halls were full of children eager to see their friends. I saw the mother of a pre-K child waving goodbye and leaving school with tears in her eyes because she was leaving her baby with strangers who will soon become her partners in the development of her child. I saw new kindergarteners enter classrooms timidly looking for their names on the wall so they would know where to hang their new book bags. On the next hall, second and third graders were hugging friends they had not seen all summer.
My visits to our middle schools revealed the same excitement, only the kids were much bigger. Students were already diligently working in classrooms. Our teachers didn’t waste any time beginning the tasks of educating their students. Middle school students found some changes upon returning to school including a new STEM lab (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Grant funds were used to add or renovate a large STEM lab in each of our five middle schools. Five STEM teachers will rotate through the middle schools every six weeks to share their areas of expertise with students that include Criminal Justice/Forensic Science, Engineering, Healthcare, Business/Marketing, and Agriculture.
Students at Southeast High School returned to find work under way to provide new tennis courts, a new track, and updated concession stands thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. Work will soon begin to renovate the stadiums at Northwest and Southeast to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Coahulla Creek students returned to find a new principal already working with the teachers to ensure the success of all students. Phoenix High School teachers were eagerly greeting new and returning students.
Students get to enjoy a new state-of-the-art mechatronics lab at the North Georgia College and Career Academy. This new course is a direct result of the partnership formed between business and educators to fulfill a need in local industry. The classes are full of bright students who will be learning the skills that could provide them with employment in a career with great pay and benefits. This course is the first of its kind in Georgia and Whitfield County students and teachers will set the pace for this new curriculum. The curriculum itself was written by Dalton leaders, submitted to the Georgia Department of Education, and approved for implementation at the Career Academy. We hope this is just the first of many collaborative ventures.
The Career Academy's new CEO will lead efforts to complete a needs assessment in Whitfield and surrounding counties to discover what technical skills employers need so we can prepare our students to fill these needs. The Career Academy Board and the Whitfield County Board of Education are working together closer than ever to deliver these advanced and relevant opportunities to our young people. When they graduate, we want students to be prepared with the skills they need to extend their education or to immediately enter the work force.
It is a challenging and thrilling time to be a part of Whitfield County Schools whether you are a student, parent, teacher, support staff, or the superintendent! My first opening day as superintendent was terrific and I am excited about the many opportunities the new school year will bring. With tremendous support from our colleagues in business, government, and education, our students and teachers have much to discover and even more to accomplish.