A large map of the world once hung on the wall of Lakeside Middle School in south Forsyth.
Underneath the words, “From around the world we are connected by Lakeside,” the map was speckled with hundreds of gold stars from Georgia to South Korea, each representing the parts of the world where students or families came from.
But school officials say that in Forsyth County, Lakeside Middle isn’t alone in its student diversity. Over the last 10 years, they say that the system and county has become the premier place to come to for a quality education, drawing a population of highly motivated students from 124 different countries.
Enrollment records for the 2018-19 school year show that of the Forsyth County school system’s 38 brick and mortar schools, 15 have student populations that are majority-minority, where the number of white students is less than the combined number of Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and African American students.
Diversity of Forsyth County schools
Student population for the Forsyth County school system by race and ethnicity for the 2018-19 school year.
According to school system Director of Communications Jennifer Caracciolo, the student demographic shift that the system has experienced is due in large part to the influx of Asian Indian families that have steadily come to Forsyth County over the last few years.
Statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau in June showed that Forsyth County had the fastest-growing Asian population in the country between 2017 and 2018 among counties with a total population of 20,000 or more with an increase of 11.5% (3,408) in residents who identify as Asian.
But even before this shift, Caracciolo says that the system had already started adapting to the changing face of the county about 20 years ago, when more and more Hispanic families began coming to the county.
Their interactions and experiences with a new population of Hispanic students and families led them to create an international “transition” center for the system, she said.
"The transition center allows us to work with families of students that may be English language learners. That's where we probably have about 20 years of experience working with our English language learners,” she said. “Making sure that we're supporting their learning, but then also connecting families, too, with resources that they might need."
When the next wave of demographic shift began sweeping through the county from the south, Caracciolo said that many of their schools were ready for the change, welcoming the new students into the county with open arms.
Eric Ashton, principal at Daves Creek Elementary, says that over the 13 years he has led the school in south Forsyth, he has seen the school’s demographic completely flip from about 93% white students to 86% Asian-Indian students, based on projections for the coming year.
When he started at the school, their attendance radius was about 13 miles, but over the years the south Forsyth community has steadily grown denser. Now their attendance zone is about 1.5 miles.
"We almost could have walked out and played on Melody Mizer Lane when I first came," Ashton said. “But we've redistricted probably seven or eight times since I've been here."
Caracciolo said that schools like Daves Creek, Johns Creek and Sharon Elementary were “early adopters” when the shift began occurring, offering inclusive community events for the growing population of diverse students.
“They were one of our first few schools to start cultural diversity night, where students and their families can come in and share about their culture,” she said. "That was their way of inviting in our families and making them part of the school community."
In the wake of those successful events, she said that other schools began to take part, welcoming in their own community and learning more about them.
But with the shifting demographics, the school system has also had its fair share of challenges to overcome, like communication, differences in cultural norms and increased demands by school staff that have more students and greater expectations.
The system partly addressed these challenges by partnering with the University of North Georgia (UNG) to provide school administrators and school staff throughout the county with a series of support programs on diversity and inclusivity.
"We want to be respectful, we want to be open and the last thing we want to do is insult anyone … It's a learning process," she said. "Those speakers in partnership with UNG really allowed us to provide much needed training for our staff."
Ashton said that at Daves Creek the trainings from UNG helped his staff greatly, improving their abilities to do things like asking for parent volunteers and PTA members in the Asian Indian community which had been a struggle before.
By understanding the culture of the community, he said that they were able to ask the right way and get better results.
“Our participation has gone up significantly since," he said.
"A big part of our philosophy is building relationships with those students,” Caracciolo said. “And to build those relationships you have to understand, what is their family life like, what are their cultural practices, what are their religious practices, so you can support them and make them feel that they are supported."
Now that the school system has worked out how vital the relationship between understanding culture and forming a relationship is, that support, training and extra thought is hardwired into how they build school communities, she said.
In the system's most recent strategic plan, which will be implemented this school year, Caracciolo said that a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan is part of the system's main goal areas and will be carried out system-wide.
But according to Caracciolo, the system has already seen success with a school that immediately opened with a very diverse student body: Denmark High School, which opened nearly a year ago with a fairly even split between white and minority students (20% Hispanic, 24% Asian, 8% Black and 45% White).
Denmark Principal Heather Gordy said that even before the school opened they had formed a “vertical team” of seven schools that are considered part of the Denmark Community of Schools. Together she said that administrators of each school are able come together to have proactive conversations and invite families in the community to Denmark to have conversations with their community.
"I had the opportunity to really put a beginning focus on our culture and climate,” Gordy said. ”I really focused last year on the relationship piece of opening a new school … and really emphasizing the importance of building those positive relationships, not only with the kids, but also with their parents and our community."
With more than 80 different clubs including DECA, FCA, Muslim Student Organization and HOSA inside the school and the opportunities that a local school counsel will bring the school in the coming year, Gordy said that Denmark is bursting with opportunities for students and families of every race or ethnicity.
"My major goal here is to have a very inclusive environment within our school building, so that we have opportunities built in for kids and they can be very involved," Gordy said.
Even though they recognize the importance of identifying and celebrating the cultural differences of their students, both Gordy and Ashton said that educationally speaking, race and culture don’t really affect what they do — good teaching is still good teaching."When you are in the world of education, kids are what you do, teaching kids is what we do every day … regardless of where they come from," Gordy said. "Walk into our cafeteria and you'll see that we are diverse and our kids don't seem to notice or care."
Diversity of Forsyth County schools
School-by-school look at Forsyth County system student population by race and ethnicity for the 2018-19 school year.