Education leaders offer insights into challenges at Walton County Chamber Education Summit

by stephen milligan - the walton tribune

From left are Esther Birge, administrator, Victory Baptist School; Nathan Franklin, superintendent, Walton County School District; Carrie Booher, superintendent, Social Circle City Schools; Rita Dickinson, founder, Monroe Country Day School; Rachel Ernst, head of school, Loganville Christian Academy; and Gary Hobbs, head of school, George Walton Academy, during Thursday’s Walton County Chamber of Commerce Education Summit. Photo credit:Stephen Milligan | The Walton Tribune

Walton County’s schools were in the spotlight Thursday last week at the Walton County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Education Summit. The Chamber dedicated its monthly business luncheon to a showcase of the county’s public and private schools, as superintendents, heads of school and administrators for the county’s various school districts and private academies gave updates on the challenges and successes they’ve seen in the last year.

Gary Hobbs, head of school for George Walton Academy, is already in his last months in the job, as a new head of school will move into the position this fall. Hobbs is finishing his two-year run as GWA’s top administrator highlighting the school’s push to balance student success in the classroom with student achievement outside the school walls. “Offering the right courses the students need is important,” Hobbs said. “We require every student be accepted to a four-year college to graduate and we have to give them the classes that will prepare them for those colleges and help them get into the colleges they want.”

Doing that, Hobbs said, meant sometimes doing more to get students the instructional time they need.

“Balancing academic rigor with traditions is big,” Hobbs said. “When I first started, I thought, ‘Man, these kids sure out of school a lot.’ We added an extra week at the beginning of the year to make sure they’re in the classroom as much as they need to be.”

At Loganville Christian Academy, the Head of School Rachel Ernst said their biggest challenge has been dealing with an influx of growth at the school.

“We’ve seen consistent growth over the last few years and making sure we have the right facilities to deal with that has been a challenge,” Ernst said. “Transportation is a challenge, as we have to transport students to athletic events and other extracurriculars. And keeping our teachers and attracting more, highly qualified teachers is something we have to work hard at.”

Ernst said fighting to provide the best resources for their students is part of ensuring they all get the best education they can receive.

“We partner with every child to see they get what they need,” Ernst said. “We prepare well-rounded students.”

Rita Dickinson, founder of the Monroe County Day School, has perhaps the smallest school in the county but is adding new programs and staff to ensure the school continues to thrive.

“Our size has been our challenge,” Dickinson said.

“We lose a few students every year when they reach the high school level as they go somewhere else with sports. So we’re hiring an athletic director and are preparing to offer more extracurriculars.”

Still, Dickinson said the school remains dedicated to the country day model of teaching the students far more than the academic requirements of other academies.

“We continue to have our students clean their own school building,” Dickinson said. “There are things our kids don’t know and haven’t learned. I am always surprised at how many kids don’t know how to hold a broom.”

The Social Circle City Schools district, led by superintendent Carrie Booher, is confronting one of its long-existing needs as it gears up to build a long-awaited new campus for the system elementary school.

“We’ve been talking about building a new elementary school for 20 years and haven’t pulled that off,” Booher said. “So now we’re pushing to pull that off. We hope to open the new elementary school in 2025.”

Still, Booher said the construction won’t change what parents and students value most about the system. “We feel like a small-town family school,” Booher said. “Everyone knows everyone and our kids are polite when they come to school. We want to keep that intact.”

Nathan Franklin, superintendent of the Walton County School District, has the biggest charge in the county — with more than 14,000 students, his system is larger than every other system and academy in the county combined — but said the district is in good shape, with great leadership from the Walton County Board of Education and strong teaching from the staff leading to a record-high 94 percent graduation rate across the district.

“A lot has changed in the last decade or so,” Franklin said. “It’s not so long ago you would have at least one of our high schools with a 50 percent graduation rate. We’ve come a long way since then.”

Still, Franklin said the challenges remain, especially a host of obstacles for students in what Franklin called non-academic barriers to education.

“The work we do is messy and it’s never-ending,” Franklin said. “But we continue to do what we can to reach every student.”

Finally, Esther Birge, administrator at Victory Baptist School, said her school is dedicated to reaching their students even in the midst of challenges unique to a small, church-based academy.

“Our biggest challenge is staffing,” Birge said. “We started two teachers short this year and we’ve had to work hard to teach around that.”

Still, Birge said they have the advantage of a spiritual base and support few other schools can boast.

“We are a ministry of Victory Baptist Church,” Birge said. “We have full support from our church and

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