By Zach Furbush, Ryan Meyer and Allison Oldani, for the Forsyth County News
Over the course of the past 10 years, there has been incredible growth in Forsyth County — especially the school system.
Because many people move to Forsyth County for the excellent school system, roughly 1,500-1,800 students have been joining our schools annually since 2014, according Dr. Jeff Bearden, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools.
This raises the question: How is the growth being managed?
To answer this question, we must first look at how schools are funded. Bearden further explains that the school system is funded in large part to the Quality Basic Education Act (QBE) which is the method of school funding used by the Georgia state government to decide how much money is given to each public school system.
The formula used by the QBE is complicated, but to put it simply, the more students who are in the school system, the more money that is received from the state. The money itself comes from state and local property taxes, and the Board of Education decides how much funding goes to the schools. The state of Georgia hasn’t always been able to give each county the necessary funding; it depends on how much money is in the budget. For a long time, Forsyth County was not fully funded — which was a big issue for the school system — but for the past few years it has been fully funded.
While the QBE makes up a lot of school funding, the community helps as well. Recently, the school board asked the community to support a $294 million bond to help manage the ever-growing community, to which they agreed.
Forsyth County schools are fully funded, but how exactly is that money used?
“There are two things you do: One, you build new schools, and two, you look at expanding existing schools,” Bearden said.
The main goal is to increase capacity to manage the growth. The money from the bond and the QBE will help build four new schools by 2022: Poole’s Mill Elementary, another unnamed elementary school, Hendricks Middle School and East Forsyth High School.
“The previous bond in 2014, we used that money to really invest in existing schools, renovating them, adding additional classrooms ... we did that at [Forsyth Central High], we did that at [North Forsyth High] and [South Forsyth High.]”
The school system is also in the process of adding a new wing to West Forsyth High School, which should increase the school’s capacity by an estimated 400 students.
Capacity is also increased by adding extra classrooms via building extensions or trailers, which increases capacity by 25-35 students per new classroom. Trailers can be a good extension because they have their own controlled air conditioning. The disadvantages of a trailer is that they lack restroom facilities and pose a potential security risk, which is why they have school resource officers near the trailers at all times and lock the doors whenever possible.
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One of the bigger concerns regarding this issue is the sheer number of students who don’t feel at home in their own schools. Bearden challenged every principal in Forsyth County to make a growing school feel smaller. Each principal approached this in his or her own way.
Mitch Young of Forsyth Central High School makes his school smaller through a number of ways, one of which is “power hour.”
“For one hour a day, you have the opportunity to connect with your closest friends, to do some homework together, to just unplug,” Young said.
Central also created several academies, such as the STEM Academy, Humanities Institute and the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Academy.
“When you go through a cohorted group like that with a group of the same students all the way through, you get to know them really well, and it makes the school feel smaller,” Young said.
Elementary schools already have smaller capacities, though it’s even more important to make sure young children don’t feel forgotten.
Dr. Lynne Castleberry, principal of Whitlow Elementary School, works to make her school feel smaller by making sure her students feel like they belong. One way this is achieved is by splitting each classroom into STEM squads, where everyone is assigned a certain “squad” such as the Explorers or Thinkers. Each group has its own purpose, and they work together as a team or all the other squads to complete the task at hand.
Fourth- and fifth-graders also have more independence in deciding what connection they want to participate in. They could elect to participate in areas such as art, music, robotics, video publishing or STEM.
Many parents are concerned that this abundance of students will lead to academic scores decreasing due to the fact that their children aren’t getting enough attention.
Though this happens from time to time, overcrowding specifically in classrooms is not that big of an issue. The school board goes by a ratio of students per teacher. If there are too many students to a class, another classroom is added and another teacher hired.
Test scores and graduation rates have risen. Forsyth Central High School has seen the graduation rate rise from 82% to 93%, yet the school has grown from 1,750 to 2,300 students over the past four years. Our Forsyth County schools in total have the highest graduation rate of the greater Atlanta metro area.
“Growth is better than loss. It’s healthier, it helps us to do more, to offer more to our students,” Bearden said. “Some manageable growth is a really good thing, I think it’s healthy.”
This article was written by Forsyth Central journalism students in partnership with the Forsyth County News.