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School year starts without major mishap
Some expected challenges: wet roads and first-week traffic
Sallie Zetterower Elementary School first grade teacher Kaitlyn Davidson gets to know Audriana Wells, 6, and the rest of her class by having them color drawings about their families and a birthday cake showing their age as Bulloch County begins the 2018-19 school year Wednesday. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

More than 10,600 students started the 2018-19 learning year in Bulloch County’s school system Wednesday with no major mishaps reported.

With 102 school bus routes totaling more than 6,000 daily miles, some first-day transportation issues are expected. Frequent summer rains have damaged portions of the county’s extensive network of dirt roads, as reported in a separate story. As of a 3:45 p.m. interview, Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson knew of no buses stuck on the roads, but acknowledged that not all the homeward routes had been completed yet.

“The rain is impacting the dirt roads, and I know we’ve had some roads that are either damaged or closed that we’ve had to work around, and we have a few buses this morning that didn’t start, or you know, just typical logistical gremlins,” he said.      

But when reminded of glitches that occurred during some previous back-to-school weeks, from internet and phone outages to a minor fire, he had no reports of similar occurrences and so was able to stick with his confident but cautious start-of-day assessment.

“We’ve got a lot of smiling faces,” Wilson had said a little after 8:30 a.m. at Langston Chapel Middle School. “Everybody just seems happy coming in. We’re trying to work through questions and concerns, but it seems to be a great start.”

He started the day at LCMS and neighboring Langston Chapel Elementary School and visited five schools before the last bell. Wilson hopes to visit all 15 schools in the first three days, but that depends on a continued lack of surprises, he said.

“On top of things being orderly, what I saw were back-to-school engagement activities, such as at Langston Elementary what I saw was  ‘The Leader In Me’ program being already started for elementary students, what I saw were students already on-task reading and doing learning activities,” Wilson said.

“The Leader in Me” is a “social and emotional learning,” or character-development, program now adopted by six of the elementary schools after Brooklet Elementary School piloted its use last year.


New LCMS leaders

Langston Chapel Middle School is the only school starting the year with a new principal. The Bulloch County Board of Education hired Dr. Eric Carlyle as principal on Wilson’s recommendation after Wilson’s controversial transfer of former LCMS Principal Dr. Evelyn B. Gamble-Hilton to fill an assistant principal vacancy at Southeast Bulloch High School.

In fact, assistant principals Dr. Kareem Epps and Keith Wright are also new to Langston Middle, giving it an entirely new administrative staff. A community reception for Carlyle, Epps and Wright, hosted by the school’s Parent Teacher Organization on July 24, drew about 100 parents, in addition to school district staff members, some BOE members and a number of “community partners” offering their support, Carlyle said.    

The school experienced significant turnover of other employees in the transition from last school year. Carlyle estimated that 20 of Langston Chapel Middle School’s employees, including support personnel as well as teachers and others with educator certificates, are newly hired.

But returning employees make up a far larger portion of the school’s workforce, and they have been welcoming and helpful, he said.

“The returning staff members have been great to help us kind of learn how they’ve been doing some things, and so instead of us jumping in and just really making wholesale change, we’ve kind of kept a lot of things running the same way that they did, and so right now it’s been very smooth,” Carlyle said, around 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

By then, students at LCMS were in their classrooms, except that there were some, as usual, who arrived in need of scheduling or directions.

With parents bringing children the first day, the parking lot had been full at one point. But Epps and other staff members “did a great job getting our parents through and keeping traffic moving for the most part,” Carlye said.


Traffic flow

Paving projects funded by the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, reportedly improved traffic flow at two of the elementary schools.

At Sallie Zetterower Elementary, which previously had only one lane for cars departing onto Cawana Road, the addition of a lane allows for designated left-turn and right-turn lanes.  Previously, parents and other drivers turning right would have to wait for the relative few making the left turn.

“That worked like a charm this morning,” said school system Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb. “The right-turn-only just kept traffic flowing.”

At Julia P. Bryant Elementary School, an access road was recently paved to an unpaved area marked for overflow parking. This option, chosen by Principal Julie Blackmar, allows for perhaps 40 to 50 additional cars, Webb said. A proposal to pave actual parking spaces would have created only 12 or 14 spaces for the available funding, he said.

Meanwhile, a transportation zone change was implemented to relieve crowding at Mill Creek Elementary School, which reached 96 percent of design capacity last school year. With students on certain streets reassigned to buses that take them to Sallie Zetterower or Mattie Lively Elementary instead, parents could choose to keep them enrolled at Mill Creek, but would have to provide their own transportation.


Growth slowing?

Crowding is not an issue in the Bulloch County Schools overall, with the elementary schools full to 77 percent, the middle schools to 78 percent and the high schools to 69 percent of building capacity on average, according to the district’s annual report.

Enrollment growth, which ran at 2 percent a couple of years ago, may now have slowed to an annual rate of 1 percent or less.

When reports were returned to the central office Wednesday, the number of children counted as present from prekindergarten through high school was 10,603. Last year’s first-day attendance was 10,524, but the immediate first-day totals are sometimes revised later.

Enrollment tends to fluctuate for the first few weeks, and an official count isn’t taken until October.


Online services

New this year, the Bulloch County Schools have made several online forms available at as an alternative to paperwork. The digital forms are provided through the Infinite Campus Parent Portal.

By Wednesday, 382 new students had been registered online. For returning students, more than 1,458 parents and guardians updated their children’s contact and emergency information through the portal. Additionally, 130 applications for free and reduced-cost meals had been filed since that form was added Friday, reported Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations and marketing specialist.


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

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