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Forsyth County Schools partnered with the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce to hold its annual State of Schools event on Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the FoCAL Center where district leaders spoke on how they plan to better connect students, staff and families this school year.
Derek Brooks, board of directors’ chairman for the Chamber of Commerce, kicked off the event by welcoming the crowd of local businesses, county and district leaders. He also paid thanks to event sponsors and community partners in education, including the title sponsor, Northside Hospital Forsyth.
Before inviting district leaders to the stage to speak about the past school year and what the community can expect from the 2022-23 year, event organizers played a video highlighting some of the district’s achievements.
Some include the system earning its highest-ever graduation rate this past year of 96.4%, and earning the highest SAT, ACT and CCRPI scores among metro Atlanta and large districts.
Wes McCall, chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Education, introduced panelists up to the stage to speak on special education, school safety and health care to share how they have worked to grow programs in these areas in the past year and how these programs will work to connect students and families this year.
McCall said that area of connection and building relationships is a huge focus in the district’s new strategic plan, which will guide district and school goals for the next five years.
“We want all students, all staff, all families to feel connected to their school and our community,” McCall said. “We want our students to all be safe, and we want our staff to feel safe. We want them to have a sense of purpose and belonging to be known well, to engage, to be respected and to be respectful.”
The panelists at the event were Kara Hudspeth, director of special education; Sarah Taylor, associate superintendent for student services; and Todd Shirley, chief operations officer for school safety.
Hudspeth started off the panel by giving the crowd an overview of what special education looks like in FCS.
She said the program now serves more than 7,000 students and has grown by about 200 students each year for the past five years. Program leaders expect growth to continue and have added another 17 specialized instruction classrooms for the 2022-23 year.
To serve those classrooms, Hudspeth said they worked to also recruit new special education teachers for the year.
“We have been really strategic in partnering with human resources to ensure that we are finding the best and the brightest new teachers to be able to support our growth, and we really have done that,” Hudspeth said.
The department plans to work with new teachers going forward on also implementing programming that they created.
As students began to come back to school regularly, Hudspeth said she and her team organized committees that were each tasked with looking at the program’s strengths, what tools they have to provide interventions for students and how they can ensure their tools and environments are easily accessible “regardless of physical need or disability.”
In working to make resources and interventions more accessible, Hudspeth hopes that students can feel that they have a voice in their education and can better communicate their needs with teachers.
Literacy has also been an important focus for the department, and Hudspeth said they have partnered with leaders in teaching and learning to start thinking differently about what reading instruction should look like in schools, especially at the elementary level.
To help teachers better support new programming and connect with students, the department created a cohort of staff members from each school to work on professional learning teams. These teams look over literacy programs and what they need to do “to ensure a specialized experience for students.”
Moving on to an overview of school safety, McCall asked Shirley to speak to the crowd about the district’s eight student advocacy specialists and how they help students in crisis.
Shirley explained that the student advocacy specialist program is proactive, working to identify and provide support to struggling students early on in their lives. Building relationships with those students is the specialists’ only focus.
“We’re just lucky enough to be able to say to these advocates, ‘You can’t coach anything, you can’t do bus duty, you can’t do lunch duty, you don’t teach class …. Find the kids,’” Shirley said.
When specialists can identify and work with students who need help, Shirley said they also provide their cell phone numbers to the student and parents or guardian. They are available 24/7 to students and families who may want to chat, text or meet up with specialist in a moment of crisis.
After speaking with specialists, some students have opened more, developed relationships with adults in schools and started to ask how they can improve their behavior and outlook.
“We like to describe ourselves as mentors on steroids, but we’re actually bigger than that,” Shirley said, reading a statement from one of the district’s student advocacy specialists. “Honestly, I believe we’re saving lives every day.”
Shirley talked about overall school safety, reminding community leaders of the vestibules that secure the entrance to each school, the security cameras set up throughout school hallways and outdoor areas and the School Resource Officers who will be stationed inside of every school building.
“I know that school safety is at the peak of everybody’s mind,” Shirley said. “I do want to say that I appreciate, as the leader of school safety, all the direction we’ve received from not only our superintendent, but our entire board of education. They do everything they can to give us the tools to make sure that the children of the Forsyth County school system are protected every day.”
During the pandemic, Taylor said she and her team in student services focused heavily on student and staff health, collaborating with the Department of Public Health to provide updated information and guidance to schools.
Every week, she and her team met with school leadership to answer questions and provide support.
They also hosted a one-day vaccination clinic for staff to receive a Covid-19 vaccine and, later, a booster shot.
“At the school level, our nurses went above and beyond the call of duty,” Taylor said. “They helped hundreds of families and answered questions to make sure our families had the needed information so they could make decisions for their children to keep them safe.”
Taylor said she spent a full day shadowing school nurses at each school level to observe their work through the pandemic and was shocked by how many students were visiting clinics.
She explained that not only were they helping with students’ physical ailments but were helping students struggling with mental health issues.
“It really highlighted how important these nurses were to our schools and the work that they’re doing,” Taylor said.
This school year, student services plan to place more focus on the mental health of students and staff, improving programming that already exists and providing more tools for school counselors, psychologists, social workers and behavioral specialists.
Taylor said she and her team are also working to break down barriers students and staff may have to access mental health services and support in the school system and community.
“We work closely with our community to make sure our students have access to quality providers,” Taylor said. “We help address students who might have difficulty with the cost of those services or possibly transportation.”
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden closed out the 2022 State of Schools event by thanking the panelists and other school leaders.
“Our staff gave you a glimpse into the 2022-23 state of our schools, and it is the people who make Forsyth County Schools the school system that it is,” Bearden said. “We appreciate the opportunity to share some of these dedicated individuals and their incredible work.”
At the end of the event, business and district leaders walked next door to the Academies for Creative Education to take self-guided tours through the facility that opened at the beginning of the 2021-22 year. It houses the Forsyth Academy, Gateway Academy and Forsyth Virtual Academy.
But before dispersing the crowd, Bearden gave one last hint as to what the new school year will bring.
“We are focused on creating a culture and climate that is conducive to teaching and learning,” Bearden said. “As we move into the 2022-23 school year, we are dedicated to a safe, connected and thriving school community for all. And we need the involvement and support of all students, parents and guardians, faculty and staff, and community members to ensure this connection.”