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Why county education leaders are starting a new coalition focused on student wellness
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Pinecrest Academy Head of School Ed Spurka speaks during a meeting of county education leaders on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Spurka convened the meeting to create a coalition of community and education leaders to tackle issues surrounding mental wellness with students. - photo by Brian Paglia

Pinecrest Academy’s new head of school, Ed Spurka, was in a conference room one Friday morning surrounded by several of his public-school counterparts. There were representatives from four of Forsyth County’s seven public high schools and one middle school, along with members of the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council. They had agreed to meet at Spurka’s request to talk about problems of drug and substance abuse in local schools and form a coalition of county education leaders that meet regularly to tackle those issues.

Spurka is well-acquainted with the concept. While principal at Cambridge High School the past eight years, he helped turn the public school into the top-performing one in Fulton County, but he also dealt with tragedy: over a five-year span, seven students at Cambridge and nearby Milton High School committed suicide, he said. It prompted Spurka to create a group of community and educational leaders to wrestle with problems students were facing.

That Friday meeting was Spurka’s attempt to do the same, though the vision for it morphed over the course of their hour together. They met under the auspices of addressing drug and substance abuse but through discussion broadened the group’s focus to mental wellness. Most in attendance were school leaders, but all agreed that the group would benefit from including students, parents and school resource officers in the future.

“The reason I’ve asked all of you to come meet is to talk about the issues we’re having with our kids,” Spurka said at the beginning of the meeting, “because they’re not isolated to South or North or West or Central or Pinecrest.”

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South Forsyth High School principal Laura Wilson, left, and Matt Woodley, right, an assistant principal at West Forsyth High School, listen as North Forsyth High School principal Jeff Cheney speaks at a meeting of county education leaders on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

Those discussions became wide-ranging. They talked about the challenges and usefulness of bringing in speakers for the community. They talked about new lunch schedules recently implemented at Central, Lambert and West aimed to provide students with more time to unwind from the rigors of their academic work. They talked about Central’s new Wellness Center and North Forsyth Middle School’s re-thinking of out-of-school suspension and how to better engage students overall.

And what began with some timidity ended with a more resolute vision: The group agreed to be called the Forsyth Student Wellness Coalition and to meet once a month with the overall goal of sharing best practices, network with mental health resources in the county and help market the group’s work to provide educational opportunities for the community.

“I think the more knowledge and more awareness that we can do together will benefit all of us,” Spurka said.

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North Forsyth Middle School principal Todd McClelland speaks during a meeting of county education leaders on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

Spurka was undaunted by the prospect of getting the county’s public and private school leaders together, probably because of his familiarity with the county. Spurka’s teaching career in Georgia started at South in 1995.

Nor did those in attendance seem wary of the collaborative nature of the coalition.

“If we’re consistent throughout not just public (schools) but also private (schools) in our community of how we are dealing with these issues, then we are going to be more successful in the long run,” said Paula Zaimus, a graduation coach at Central.

Near the end, planners were examined and a date for the coalition’s next meeting was set for January.

“I think there’s a significant need across our nation to put together something that is effective,” said Jeff Cheney, principal at North Forsyth High School. “We’re all trying different things. We’re all trying to get to that point.”