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Ringing in a new year
First day of school sees no issues with attendance shift
Julia P. Bryant Elementary School third-grade teacher Elisabeth Gibbon, 23, gets to know student Jhirmerea Gadson, 8, while students fill out "All About Me" pages during the first day of school Monday. Gibbon is one of nearly 100 new teachers being hired this fall by the Bulloch County school system, as additional local and state funding has allowed principals to reduce class sizes and help improve student achievement. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Exactly 9,683 students started the 2015-16 term Monday in the Bulloch County Schools, but if trends hold true, enrollment will top 10,200 students within a few weeks.

Two campuses, the Langston Chapel and Sallie Zetterower elementary schools, were expected to see a shift of about
150 students from one to the other after a zoning change. Elsewhere in the system, new labs for hands-on learning in science, math and related subjects are now in use, and more teachers have been hired with new local funding. But as is typical for a first day of school, many of the numbers were still up in the air.

"So far, so good," said Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, who greeted reporters at Mill Creek Elementary School between 8 and 9 a.m. "My main focus now is safety and getting everybody kind of settled in, get things organized and moving."

He and Public Relations Specialist Hayley Greene had offered local media opening-day access to any of the 15 schools - except Langston Chapel Elementary School and Sallie Zetterower Elementary School.

Last school year, Langston Chapel Elementary's enrollment grew to about 790 students, considered its limit, while the Sallie Zetterower school, opened in 2011, still had some empty classrooms and was operating at 55 percent capacity.

So a short-range change in attendance-zone lines that Wilson and Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb planned last spring was expected to move about 150 students who previously attended Langston Chapel Elementary to Sallie Zetterower.

"It seems to have gone smoothly," Wilson said. "We tried to spend a good bit of time organizing that, and right now, everyone seems to be in place. So we'll continue to monitor that situation. That will take about a week or two to settle down, but right now, things seem to be OK."

After checking with Webb and both schools, at the end of the day Greene reiterated that shift between LCES and Sallie Z. had not been a problem. One child wound up at the wrong school, but it was a child who should have been at a third school and was not actually part of the rezoning, Greene said.

Traffic backed up on approaches to some schools as parents drove their children to campus. But this is nothing new for a first day.

"A lot of elementary and middle school parents take their children the first day, kids who would traditionally be bus riders, so as you get on into the week, the kids get into their bus-riding routine, and you'll see that traffic diminish," Greene said.

Steady growth

Last school year, total Bulloch County Schools attendance topped out at 10,192 in the March 5 count. Wilson noted that enrollment has been growing at about 2 percent a year, which he called "slow, steady growth," and said that he expected about 10,200 students soon. The schools typically start with fewer students than they ended the year with and regain the previous high by the first state-required count in October.

Looked at in isolation, the first-day attendance rose almost 4.9 percent, from 9,234 students last August to 9,683 Monday.

With the budget for the fiscal year that July 1, the Bulloch County Board of Education provided $2.2 million, mainly from its fund balance, to the schools to make up for cuts in state funding that have yet to be fully restored. The principals and their leadership teams were allowed to decide how to spend each school's share, with the expectation that much of it would be used to hire more teachers, after years of cuts through attrition.

Wilson did not have a count of how many teachers have been added, separate from those hired to fill vacancies. But he said he has asked the school system's human resources staff for this information and will be following up with principals.

"It's about autonomy at the school level to figure out what they need to do, and that's what I'll be finding out more about as I have discussions with them over the course of the next several months," Wilson said.

STEM labs

The money has allowed two schools, Mill Creek Elementary School and Brooklet Elementary School, to open STEM labs. The acronym stands for "science, technology, engineering and math."

Each school's STEM lab will provide "maker spaces" for "building, creating, engineering, testing things," explained Mill Creek Elementary School Principal Patrick Hill. He also referred to robotics and coding (writing software) as activities the elementary school students may try there.

"It's not the old-fashioned science lab," Hill said. "It's not the 20th century; it's a 21st-century learning experience where we're being innovative and the students are engaged."

He used the funding to add a regular teaching position, freeing up an experienced teacher, Paige Rountree, to become the STEM lab teacher for all grades.

Similarly, at Brooklet Elementary, Principal Marlin Baker reported that he hired a new grade-level teacher, allowing Mark Petkewich, who previously taught fourth grade, to teach in the STEM lab for prekindergarten through fifth grade. Brooklet's STEM lab was already in use Monday.

After dropping by several times, Baker described "lots of excitement, doing hands-on activities, problem-based learning."

"We're very excited about it," he said. "Of course, it's a process, and we've got to build it, but I think we have a great start with it."

The Mill Creek and Brooklet schools are working together and with Georgia Southern University's Interdisciplinary STEM Institute to equip the labs. Hill said a grant may be available for this.

Dual enrollment

Meanwhile, on the Statesboro High School campus, the new year brings the launch of Mechatronics offered by Ogeechee Technical College to 11th and 12th-graders.

It's a dual enrollment program, so students can both earn high school elective and college credits. Students who complete it can, after graduating from high school, pursue an associate degree at OTC and eventually earn a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering at Georgia Southern.

The school system also announced that it will be communicating with middle and high school students and their parents about opportunities under the new Move on When Ready Act. This state law combines Georgia's previous dual enrollment programs.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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