Forsyth County Schools partnered with the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce to hold its annual State of the Schools event on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at East Forsyth High School where district leaders spoke on the successes this past school year and plans moving forward.
Business, county and district leaders from throughout Forsyth attended the event, seizing the opportunity to meet with other industry officials and hear more about what to expect from FCS in the 2021-22 school year and beyond.
When Forsyth County Board of Education Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey kicked off the State of the Schools presentation, she began by talking about some of the success the district saw coming into an unprecedented school year last August.
“A lot of people in education have said that last year was, by far, the hardest year they’ve ever experienced,” Morrissey said.
From Zoom calls, virtual schooling and online events to face masks, social distancing and temperature checks, last year was a difficult time for many. The COVID-19 pandemic came as a surprise, having a devastating impact on communities globally.
Despite this, Morrissey said the community in Forsyth County came together to “make the best out of a bad situation,” and help families, institutions, nonprofits, businesses and health care workers where they could.
She believes community support, strength of students and families and the innovative and proactive thinking of district leaders and school staff allowed the system to come out of the last school year with huge success.
Making it work
Last summer, the FCS governance team faced a more than $23 million deficit in its budget created through sudden cuts to state funding, and at the same time, families and FCS staff alike were unsure of whether it was safe to send kids back to school.
In the face of these issues, district leadership immediately agreed not to raise taxes, reduce workforce or increase class sizes. Before the start of the year, they also made the announcement to families that they would be offering a choice of either virtual or in-person schooling, so parents could choose what would fit their individual child’s needs.
In the end, FCS leaders and staff were able to make these decisions work.
They put plans in place to make sure students had technology at home to participate in virtual classes, and principals at each of the district’s schools supplied teachers and resources to students outside of the school walls while still providing an education to students on campus.
To ensure student safety on campus, staff members also kept schools clean and asked students to follow COVID-19 guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Public Health.
Community members and businesses also helped by donating PPE, meals and other supplies to teachers and families.
The district learned through the experience that some virtual options may be a great addition to the school system even after the pandemic calms.
Morrissey said one example of that were the virtual open houses and curriculum nights hosted last year. Since they were online, more families were able to participate in their own time without having to travel to the school.
As the district “pivoted” to accommodate for the safety of students, staff and families, they were still able to serve its more than 51,500 students in 41 different schools while keeping up with planned construction of new projects and facilities.
The community has been able to see the tangible results of those efforts in the last month as the district opened up several new facilities — East Forsyth High School, Hendricks Middle School and the Academies for Creative Education — to the public.
Continuing in-person events
While the district continued with its ongoing projects, they also worked to hold safe in-person celebrations and events for students and families. These included sporting events, concerts, proms and other extra curriculars.
Although last year’s ceremony was delayed, FCS also held in-person graduations for the class of 2020 and the class of 2021.
“We really felt it important for students to have that celebration with their families,” Morrissey said.
She explained that these graduations were especially important this year as FCS reached a record graduation rate at 96.1%. More than 3,700 graduates from seven different high schools had the opportunity to walk the stage this past May.
Those graduates included the inaugural class of the Alliance Academy for Innovation, FCS’ college and career high school.
The 2021-22 year
Morrissey also took the time to speak to guests about what FCS has in store for the new school year.
Overall, FCS is expecting student enrollment to reach a peak of more than 52,000 this year, and to keep up with the influx in students, the district also just welcomed in more than 360 new teachers to its schools.
With so many returning from virtual learning last year, Morrissey reminded guests that the district will be limiting COVID-19 measures in its schools. Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden originally made the announcement during the Board of Education’s July meeting that he hopes to have a “normal” school year as long as state and local mandates allow.
He did, however, make clear that guidelines and mandates can change based on local data and recommendations. After hearing concerns from parents, the district later made a change to include stricter mandates for elementary schools, which will last through Labor Day on Sept. 6.
“Like last year, we want our students and staff to be safe,” Morrissey said. “Dr. Bearden and staff will continue to meet with and receive daily reports from local, state and federal agencies and use that information to make informed decisions on a day-by-day and school-by-school basis.”
Outside of opening plans, FCS has approved a new Educational Special Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, referendum for the November ballot.
If passed, the referendum would reimpose a 1% sales tax placed on anyone who makes purchases in Forsyth County regardless of where they live or work.
Forsyth County voters have approved five other E-SPLOST referendums in the past, the most recent being in 2016. With E-SPLOST V ending in June 2022, the new referendum gives voters the choice to continue with the sales tax for the next five years.
Morrissey and other leaders stressed during the State of the Schools that E-SPLOST VI is crucial for the district to pay for capital projects in the coming years. These are mostly life cycle projects, which includes replacing outdated technology and refreshing areas in older schools.
She said with the opening of several new facilities and schools in the district, too, the district is not planning for another bond referendum in the next five years. This means that if E-SPLOST VI is passed, they can focus on getting bond payments down and lower the bond millage rate.
Morrissey addressed the district’s upcoming work in creating its next five-year strategic plan in light of conversations surrounding FCS’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan over the last three months.
She said the DEI plan is all about making sure they create a culture and climate in which each of Forsyth’s students feel safe and respected. Morrissey, Bearden and the other board members said they want to make sure they keep that in place for students.
“I sincerely hope this goal is something we can all agree to strive for,” Morrissey said.
Moving into the fall, they are planning to work with concerned parents, students and community stakeholders to update the plan and make sure it is a good fit for everyone involved.
Teaching and learning
After speaking to guests, Morrissey invited a panel of district department leaders to speak on the progress over the past year and future plans.
The panel included Chief Facilities Office Matt Wark, Associate Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Lee Anne Rice, Director of College and Career Development Dr. Valery Lowe and Dawn Phipps, the director of the upcoming Forsyth County Arts and Living Center, or FoCAL.
Rice began the panel, speaking on what her department learned last year while working to find curriculum and teaching solutions during the pandemic.
She reminded guests that the district already had Forsyth Virtual Academy in place for middle and high school students, but they had to come together last summer to come up with a virtual platform and curriculum for elementary students before the start of the school year.
That is just one example of some of the many issues district leaders faced during the crisis.
“We were encountering things we had never encountered before,” Rice said. “There was no direction manual …. And so we had to use critical and creative thinking. We had to interact effectively. We had to exhibit positive characteristics in ourselves.”
After last year, Rice said she believes FCS is now in a good place instructionally. Now, she said they will be using this next year to monitor students to get a sense of where they are, where they need to be and how the school and teachers can help them get there.
“I think that’s really important in a year like this where we’re going to have students coming back in different places,” Rice said. “We’re going to have students who have faced some trauma with the pandemic. We want to make sure that we’re taking care of our students, not just intellectually and academically, but also socially and emotionally.”
Morrissey asked Wark about projects coming up in the next five years for the facilities department, which they hope will be made possible through E-SPLOST VI funding.
Outside of the plans for a new school to replace Midway Elementary, which has faced overcrowding issues over the past few years, the funding would be used mainly for updates and refreshers.
“We have lifecycle things in all of our schools that need to get done, and over the next five years, we’re ready to accomplish that,” Wark said.
As far as CTAE programs and clubs, Lowe said she and her team are currently working on bring back its partnerships with local businesses and industry leaders after a year of the pandemic to get students back out into internship and real-world working experiences.
With the opening of East Forsyth High School, the district now has more than 50 career pathways, each taken in the course of three years.
While following those pathways, Lowe said it is important for students to get a sense of what that industry and working environment will be like outside of the classroom. This not only helps students who choose to begin their career after high school, but it also assists in finding success in college as students get a better feel for what they want from future careers.
Lowe said she is proud of the district’s internship and mentorship program, and it continues to grow year after year. In 2021-22, more than 900 students across the district are currently looking for or have secured internships for the school year.
“That’s not a huge commitment for an employer, 5-10 hours a week, to let our students come either before they arrive at school or after school to work in your place of employment,” Lowe said. “I know we have a lot of employers in the room who have allowed us to place students in your protective environment to help them learn those simulated work environments.”
Phipps told guests about her continued work with the FoCAL Center, which is expected to open in late fall.
She described the center as a versatile venue for music, theater, entertainment and learning not just for the county’s students, but the community as a whole.
The two-story building, located next to the district office near downtown Cumming, includes a state-of-the art theater with the capacity for 1,800 guests and black box theater with the capacity for another 200 guests.
Outside of the theaters, the building also features rehearsal space, dressing rooms, a catering kitchen, meeting space and a large lobby that could be used for galleries or other meetings.
Phipps envisions FoCAL as a hub for all things surrounding fine arts in the community. She wants to use the venue as way for local adults and students to showcase their talents, for traveling and local shows to perform and for everyone in the community to learn more about visual arts, theater, music, voice, dance and more.
“Just think about those One-Act plays or band competitions where students or parents have always traveled to other places in Georgia,” Phipps said. “Now, we can host those in Forsyth County.”
Aside from hosting events, Phipps said she wants to bring unique programming to FoCAL. One major program coming is the Penguin Project, which serves actors, artists and students with special needs.
She is also working on partnering with the district’s CTAE programs to involve students who study fine arts, but also students from other areas. With the need for event planning at the venue, students can learn more about marketing, hospitality and management.
“It’s an exciting time for Forsyth County Schools, our students and our community, and especially for the fine arts in this community,” Phipps said. “We are clearly focused on FoCAL, and we can’t wait to open our doors in the fall and for you all to see what we’ve got happening.”
The district will be holding a grand opening for the center on Dec. 3, which will include food, entertainment and tours of the new facility. The following day, Dec. 4, they will also hold a free open house event for the community.
To close out the State of Schools event, Bearden thanked the panelists along with the community and business members in attendance.
“It’s the people who make Forsyth County Schools the school system that it is, and we appreciate the opportunity to share some of these dedicated individuals and their incredible work with you all today,” Bearden said.
After the presentation, guests enjoyed a breakfast provided in the school’s cafeteria before taking self-guided tours of the facility.