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County ranks among best for young people
Friends, from left, Sydney Doolittle, Megan Carlisle and Roxana Gonzalez walk through the Avenue Forsyth on Friday. Forsyth County has been named one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People.” - photo by Autumn McBride

A few months ago, most local leaders had no idea who he was. But Jordan LaPier knew many things about Forsyth County.

As senior director of America’s Promise Alliance, LaPier was among those who selected the county as one of 100 Best Communities for Young People.

“This year’s pool of applicants was the most diverse and competitive in the program’s history, with 350 communities nominated,” LaPier told community members during an award presentation Thursday.

“To have been selected for this recognition is a really great accomplishment for this community, and a testament to the outstanding work you’re all doing on behalf of the youth in Forsyth County.”

Communities were chosen based on programs to keep students in school and prepare them for college and the 21st century work force. They also encourage civic involvement, enhance educational opportunities and facilitate better access to health care for youth.

It was a combination of several of the county’s youth-focused resources that helped Matt Webber, a West Forsyth High School senior who had fallen off track a few years earlier.

During the award ceremony, Webber shared his story, which began with a felony drug bust at age 13. By 15, he had been kicked out of three different schools for drug use and possession.

Now drug-free for 20 months, Webber has gotten his life back in order through the help of various county resources.

He’s been taking online classes to catch up on schoolwork, was enrolled in two drug programs through the court system and is “working on graduating on time.”

“I would just like to say thank you ... very much for pushing me,” Webber told the group. “All of you guys helped me to become sober and to be where I’m at today and I appreciate it.”

Forsyth County has a variety of youth-focused resources, including more than 600 businesses that work with local schools through the Partners in Education program.

The school system is also working on PROPEL, a project to lift its high school graduation rate, and has raised its SAT scores through the SAT 2400 Challenge.

PROPEL, or Pathways for Reaching Opportunities in Preparing for Excellence in Life, is a joint effort of the school system and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.

The county also offers many nonprofit opportunities for children, including river cleanups, Boy and Girl Scouts and programs that build self-esteem.

School Superintendent Buster Evans said during the ceremony that the county is going to be a great place for young people for a long time to come.

“It’s going to be a great place because of what’s been done in the past,” he said. “It’s because of the vision that continues to not be defeated, even during a time when things are economically challenged.”

The honor of being one of the top 100 communities comes with more than a title. The county gains access to the alliance’s network of nearly 450 partners that offers connections to resources, grant assistance and other support.

In a letter to the winners, alliance president and CEO Marguerite Kondracke wrote that the program hopes “to not only support but strengthen your community’s outstanding youth-serving programs.”

Forsyth’s participation in the competition started with Ruth Goode, executive director of the local United Way, and Judi Jenkins, the school system’s business and community relations facilitator. Together, they completed the application for the competition, sponsored by ING.

Goode deferred credit to the community’s stakeholders: “Schools, businesses, our chamber, city and county governments, our court system, our faith-based community and the wonderful nonprofits that provide both prevention and safety net services, as well as opportunities for youth leadership.”

Jenkins presented awards to Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt and James McCoy, president of the chamber, for being “the reason that we were able to do this.”

McCoy thanked the school system’s leadership team, crediting it for the “driving force of what makes this place a great community and a vibrant place to live, work and play.”

Gravitt, a lifelong city resident, looked back to the 1940s when he said the graduation rate was low.

“When I graduated, it was less than 50 percent,” Gravitt said. “We’ve advanced so far and I can see ... that Cumming and Forsyth County will be in the 90 percent graduation [rate] in the near future because of the talent that this board of education and Buster [Evans] and the staff has accumulated.”

Other communities selected for the recognition spanned the country, from Bellevue, Wash., to Tampa, Fla. Bibb and Troup counties were Georgia’s only other honorees.