FORSYTH COUNTY — Buster Evans remembers arriving from Bleckley County in 2007 and feeling overwhelmed.
In Forsyth County, he knew he was stepping into a high-quality system with rapid growth, great programming and high expectations.
“But I was so encouraged from the very beginning,” said Evans, who nearly seven years later is preparing to step down as school superintendent for a new career as assistant commissioner of education with the state Department of Corrections.
As Evans reflected recently on his tenure in Forsyth, which ends June 30, he said leaving the community was a difficult decision.
“I was emotionally torn. You don’t work for as hard and as long and not get tied to the wonderful people here, building bonds and building relationships,” he said.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy. It will not be any different than it was when I pointed my vehicle north and left [middle Georgia]. There were tears of emotion and it will be the same way at the end of the month when I leave Cumming and head down.”
Evans went on to note that his time in Forsyth has “purely just been a joy and I’m so thankful for the relationships I’ve built.”
Since he assumed the role in January 2008, following a several-month transition serving alongside former Superintendent Paula Gault, Evans has introduced new initiatives and goals. Most were aimed at increasing the use of technology and raising test scores and transparency.
It began with the R4 Dashboard, a source of data for parents, teachers and administrators that Evans introduced three months into the job.
The dashboard was just the launching pad for Evans digital technology integration, which also included the Bring Your Own Technology initiative.
The BYOT program, as it has become known, allows students to learn using their own cell phones, tablets, laptops and other devices. It has become so successful, the school district holds several tours a year for other school systems to visit and view it.
The most recent product of Evans’ technology push is the “its Learning” personalized system. The platform is a one-stop source for all things digital, including homework assignments and project information for students, grades and test results for parents and planning and data entry for teachers.
Despite the technological advancements, Evans said he thinks the school system has “room to grow.”
“Technology is a moving target,” he said. “There’s so much we’ll be looking to refocus on. But we will be integrating technology more and more.
“The whole idea of the personalized learning with ‘its Learning’ is that it’s so much the wave of the future and ... it will just be a perpetual opportunity for students.”
Evans also reflected on the 25 percent enrollment growth he’s seen since he took office, which he said the system was able to manage while still lowering the cost per student nearly annually.
According to Evans, Forsyth has been able to flourish despite the growth, largely due to its IE2, or Investing in Education Excellence, contract with the state. The arrangement has secured the system more flexibility from some standards in exchange for increased accountability.
Evans credited principals and staff members for their creativity in finding ways to lift results under the contract, which expires at the end of the 2014-15 school year. The board of education is currently weighing whether to seek a five-year extension.
“[The contract] is one of the things that opened the door to innovations that I don’t think we otherwise would have been able to do,” Evans said. “We were able to save lots of money by using the flexibility ... I clearly would point to this as one of the reasons we were able to succeed.”
The outgoing superintendent also oversaw the launch of both the SAT 2400 Challenge, which encouraged students to strive for a perfect score on the test, and PROPEL.
Short for Pathways for Reaching Opportunities in Preparing for Excellence in Life, PROPEL has helped the system improve its graduation rate, a goal Evans said he expects to continue when he leaves.
“You’ll continue to see our high school completion rates increase,” he said. “Just like the SAT challenge, it took several years for us to see the fruits of our labor... it will be the same thing with PROPEL,” he said. “You’ll see in the future some of our best high school completion rates.”
Evans pointed to relationships as the key to the school system’s success. “We are a people business. We’re a business that’s about relationships,” he said.
But it’s not just the close relationships he’s made with colleagues over the years, but also those built within each initiative to make it successful. Evans also credited the school system’s success to the county’s business community.
“They are a real fabric of strength of our school system,” he said. “It reflects the impact our entire business community has on the schools.
“I’m so thankful for those organizations, such as our PTAs and our Rotary Clubs. Those are the people who have been partners in our work and they have brought greater quality to my own life because we have worked together. There’s a lot of that I’m going to miss in my future role.”
Evans is viewed as the district’s leader, but he’s made it a priority to also get to know the students and teachers.
“You want to get into as many of your schools throughout the year as you can, which required me to keep a spreadsheet of where I had been ... spreading yourself over 35 schools can be a little bit of a challenge, but I think it’s important,” he said.
“By being able to go into a pottery class and to throw pottery along with the students, getting mud up to your elbows and in your dress pants while you’re having a great time is something that they’re going to remember and be able to do for the rest of their lives.”
Evans plans to take his passion for learning and technological advancements with him to his new role. With 24-hour digital access to education, he hopes to help establish a well-educated prison population which is better prepared for their release.
“I’m not naïve in thinking we’re going to change the whole world, but everyone who we are involved in teaching is somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter and very likely somebody’s mom or somebody’s child ... and if we can create success in their life, I’ll be able to say that I’ve made a difference,” he said. “I’m up for the challenge.”
While he’s leaving Forsyth County for the middle Georgia city of Forsyth, Evans said he will never be more than a phone call away. And he expressed full confidence in Jeff Bearden, current superintendent of Rome City Schools, who last week was named the sole finalist to replace him in the fall.
“Part of being a good superintendent is learning how to be a good ex-superintendent,” he said. “I’ll always be available, but they don’t have to worry about me being an unwelcomed guest. I will continue to be Forsyth County Schools’ biggest cheerleader.”