Fetching Features: a look at former Superintendent Mark Henson

Community, Lifestyle

Have you ever had a goal that you wished to achieve? Something became a driving force in your life as it took a point of focus. It may have been that you wanted to become something, maybe a firefighter, an astronaut, or a soldier. You strove to follow that dream, to grow closer to that goal. The achievement was your motivation.

For some, at least.

Many people will recall the nearly 30 years Mark Henson spent as the Superintendent of Fannin County Schools teaching and influencing the kids of Fannin County. Many may think of this as a life well spent. Henson himself would agree, but it was not always so.

Growing up among a family of educators, Henson knew the life well before he even graduated high school. It was part of the reason he struggled so hard against it. While it may seem like 30 years in the career isn’t the best evasion strategy, Henson says it came down to logic as to why he finally gave in.

After high school graduation, he took his goal of avoidance instead of achievement to heart. “If you go back and look at my high school annual, my ambition was to do anything but teach school because everybody in my family at that time, were teachers,” says Henson as he explains attending the University of Georgia shortly before moving back to Blue ridge to work for the Blue Ridge Telephone Company.

Spending about a year at the job after college didn’t work out. Henson doesn’t speak much on the topic as he says his father knew someone working for Canada Dry in Athens. With a job opening available and good pay to entice him, Henson made the switch to working for the soda company.

Moving to Athens, Henson became an RC/Canada Dry Salesperson over the surrounding five counties in Athens. A hard job that required many hours, Henson said he’d be at work at 6 a.m. and got back home at 8:30 p.m. Though well-paying, the job fell flat for Henson as he came to terms with the long hours and little time for himself. With two years under his belt at the company, he began thinking about Blue Ridge again and his options. As he says, “Teaching didn’t look so bad then.”

Despite the years in opposition, the effort spent running away from the ‘family business,’ Henson began thinking ahead at the rest of his life. Already considering retirement at the time, it was this that ultimately turned his attention back to teaching. It wasn’t family, it wasn’t friends, but rather, it was logic that drew him to the career his life’s ambition avoided.

“I made pretty good money, there just wasn’t any retirement,” says Henson about his time at Canada Dry. As he looked harder at teaching and began seriously considering the career path, he says, “When you look at teachers, you’re never going to get rich being a teacher, but there’s a lot of benefits like retirement and health insurance that these other jobs just didn’t have.” He also notes he proved what he wanted as he retired at 54-years-old.

After much thought, it began with a call to his father, Frank Henson. He told his father he wanted to come home and pursue teaching. Though his father told him to come home and stay with them again, Henson says it was the money he had saved from his position at Canada Dry that allowed him to attend school for a year before being hired as a para-pro, a paraprofessional educator. It was a very busy time in his life as Henson states, “I would go up there and work until 11:30, and then I would work 12 to 4 at what used to be the A&P in McCaysville. I went to school at night…”

The next few years proved to be hectic as he graduated and started teaching professionally “with a job I wasn’t even certified for.” It was January of 1989 and the new school superintendent had been elected in November and as he took office in January he left a gap in the school. To fill the Assistant Principal position the, then, Superintendent had left, they promoted the teacher of the career skills class. With the vacancy in the classroom, Henson was appointed to step in to teach the class. Half a year was spent teaching a career path and skill class to 9th graders in what Henson refers to as a “foreign world.”

The first full-time teaching position he holds was perhaps the one he was least qualified for. Henson noted his nervousness taking the state-funded program. The previous teacher had gone to the University of Georgia to receive training to fill the position. Talking with the previous teacher about the class, Henson shared his reservations about the lack of training and certification. Receiving note cards and guidance on how to handle it helped, but only so far.

Henson recalled looking at the cards and seeing tips like, “Talk about work ethic for 20 minutes.” He was stuck in a position without a firm foundation. He spent the next semester “winging it” and juggling the class with student placement in businesses. Struggling through the day to day at the time, he now looks back and says, “Apparently, I did pretty good at it.”

The interesting part was that the promotions that led him into this position similarly mirrored Henson’s own path to Superintendent one day. An omen easily looked over at the time, but glaringly obvious in hindsight. Though he wouldn’t take the direct path from Teaching to Assistant Principal to Superintendent, they did set the milestones that he would hit on his way.

He also saw plenty of doubt on his way, too. He never looked at the Superintendent position as a goal, but even maintaining a teaching position seemed bleak as he was called into the office one day and told his career class position was no longer being funded.

Thinking he was losing his job, he began considering other opportunities as well as missed options, he had just turned down a position in Cartersville where Stacy, his wife, was teaching. Worrying for no reason, Henson says he was racing through these thoughts until they finally told him they were moving him to Morganton Elementary.

Taking up a Math and Social Studies teaching at Morganton Elementary, Henson found more familiar territory in these subjects. Yet, having gotten used to the career skills, he says he still felt like he was starting over again. The years proved later to be quite fortuitous as Henson says he still has people to this day stop him and talk about their time learning from him as students. Relating back to his own school years, he admits he wasn’t the best student and he made his own bad decisions.

From situations in band and class alike, he notes that he worked hard, usually sitting in first and second chair as he played the trombone, but he still found plenty of things to get into as he, by his own confession, “made the drum major’s lives and stuff miserable.” Enjoying every opportunity he could get to goof off, it became a trend throughout his school career.

Yet, in teaching, he brought those experiences and understanding to the kids as he tailored his classes each year. He shared one story of a girl that stopped him to speak for a while. Eventually, she asked, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Admitting that he didn’t, she replied, “Well, you really helped me a lot. I was ADD and you would let me sit at your desk.” He says she went on talking about the way he changed her life.

It seems almost common now to associate teachers with stories like these, changing people’s lives, yet, it’s not often you may think a student causing trouble would become that kind of teacher.

The effort returned in a major way as Henson was elected Teach of the Year at Morganton Elementary in only his second year. The award was a testament to his efforts and success, but also evidence of how much he had changed in his life.

“You get out of school and you work a couple of real hard jobs, you see there might be more to life than goofing off. That got me redirected and helped me get through college and get my teaching degree,” says Henson.

It was more than just awards, though. Morganton Elementary created several relationships for Henson that followed him throughout his career and his life. spending four years at Morganton made it the longest position at the point, but it led to so much more. It led to three more years of teaching at East Fannin Elementary before receiving a promotion to Assistant Principal at West Fannin Middle School.

Moving from a position as a teacher to Assistant Principal isn’t just a promotion, it is a major change into school administration. No longer dealing with individual classes of students, Henson says it becomes far more political as you get pressed between teachers and parents. You walk a tightrope as you want to support your teachers in what they do, and you want to listen to concerned parents and find that middle ground. “You have got to kind of be a buffer between them… You’re always walking a tightrope,” he said.

He served as Assistant Principal to Principal David Crawford who served as Assistant Principal to his father, Frank Henson. Mentoring him in administration, he says David was a “laid back guy” that would still “let you have it” some days. It set him on a steep learning curve. Despite the jokes and stories, he led Henson on a quick path to his own education. In a sort of ‘sink or swim’ mentality, Henson said he was given a lot more authority than he expected, but he enjoyed the job.

How much he enjoyed it was a different point. Though Henson says he has never had a job in education he hated, he did say that his year as Assistant Principal was his “least-favorite job.” Though stressing he has enjoyed his entire career, he noted that the stress and shock of transitioning from Teaching to the Administration as a more big picture job factors into the thought.

Even that wasn’t meant to last long as he moved from Assistant Principal to Principal after just one year.

Nearing the end of his first, and only, year as Assistant Principal, he was called into the office again. This time it was the school systems office as his Superintendent at the time, Morgan Arp, wanted to speak with him. As he tells the story, “He said, ‘I’m looking at restructuring the system a little bit on principals and administrators. I’m not saying this is gonna happen, but if I made you Principal at East Fannin, would that be okay?’

I said, ‘Sure, I’ve been there and I know the people fine.’

He said, ‘What about West Fannin?’

I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there a year, I can deal with that.’

He said, ‘What about Blue Ridge Elementary?’

I said, ‘Well, that’s the school I know the least. I’m sure if you put me in there, I could. But the other two make me feel a little more comfortable.’

So the next day I got a call, and I was principal for Blue Ridge Elementary.”

Though comical, Henson said it actually worked out great as he met two of his best colleagues there. Cynthia Panter later became an Associate Superintendent and Karen Walton later became his Assistant Superintendent. Both were teachers he met at Blue Ridge Elementary.

“Blue Ridge was really where I made a lot of later career relationships,” says Henson.

His time as Principal was also a lot easier for him as he says after the year at West Fannin he knew what he was doing and had more confidence in the position. Having ‘matured’ into the job, he says the Principal position has more latitude in decisions. Having a great staff at both schools made the job easier, but the transition was simpler also because he felt he was always second-guessing himself as an assistant principal. His maturity also gave him new outlooks on the choices and decisions made.

“I think a good administrator serves as a shield between the public and teachers who need someone in there to mediate,” he says. Molding things into a larger plan for the schools and taking views from all those who take a stake in their education, “Everybody wants what’s best for the child.”

Surrounding himself with assistant principals and administrators that were detail oriented to allow him to deal with people and focus on the ‘big picture,’ two of his favorite parts of his career as he says.

After three years at Blue Ridge Elementary, the Curriculum Director at the county office resigned. Applying on a fluke instinct, he later got a call saying he got the position. He joined the staff as K-6 Director of Curriculum alongside Sandra Mercier as 7-12 Director of Curriculum.

However, his time in the office saw much more work as he spent time covering as Transportation Director and other fill-in duties. It wasn’t until 2003 when Sandra Mercier took the office of Superintendent, according to Henson, that she named him as Assistant Superintendent and really began his time in the Superintendent position.

He had never thought about going for the position, applying, or even thinking of it. Henson said he did want to be a Principal, but the county offices were beyond his aspirations.

Largely different from transitioning from Teacher to Administrator, the transition into the Superintendent position was far easier says Henson. You’re already dealing with a lot of the same things on a single school scale, but moving to the Superintendent position crosses schools and districts. He did not there is a lot more PR involved, but nothing to the extreme change as he experienced his first year in administration.

Becoming Superintendent in 2007, he says he focused on opening the school system up and growing more transparent than it already was. Sharing information and speaking straight about his feelings allowed a certain connection with people. It seems, in truth, that he never quite outgrew some of the goofiness of his childhood as he recalls joking with colleagues and staff.

Henson says he wanted to have a good time in the office despite everything they dealt with. He pushed the staff, but they also played pranks on each other and shared moments like a school secretary embarrassing her daughter with a funny picture.

Noting one particular instance, Stacy recalls a story with finance running checks in the office. With one office member in particular who would always try to jump scare people running the check machine. Henson quickly opened the door and threw a handful of gummy bears at her. Unfortunately, a few were sucked into the machine and ruined the check run. It wasn’t a good day considering, yet the staff laughed about it and shared in the comedy.

A necessary part of the job is what Henson calls it. The lightheartedness was key to maintaining his staff. “If you stay serious a hundred percent of the time, it’s going to kill you,” he says.

The position wasn’t just laughter and jokes though, tough times came plenty enough. Not all of them were the expected issues that you might expect. Aside from the general politics that face schools daily in these times, Henson even dealt with death threats in his position. Having let people go and dealt with others careers, he admits he had that one employee’s spouse threated his life after a firing.

As he speaks about some of the hardest moments like this, it’s hard to find out how harrowing the event really was. Henson says now that it’s not a big deal, it wasn’t the only threat he had. His wife speaks a little more plainly as she confesses some days, she couldn’t tell if it was worth it for him to be the Superintendent. Yet, even she says in hindsight that she is proud of the honesty, integrity, and openness that permeated his ten years.

Additionally, dealing with things like the shootings and issues that have plagued schools in the last decade, he adds, “It’s a more stressful job than when I started 30 years ago. It’s much more stressful. There are so many things that the state expects, that locals expect, that parents expect… I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in another 30 years.”

Henson agreed that schools have lost a lot of the innocence they used to have within the teachers and staff. As these people continue to rack their brains on following the mission to educate and keep kids safe, they take a lot of the stress off the kids as they are at school. He said, “I don’t know if it’s spelled out, but I think if you’re a good teacher, you feel that inherently.”

It also branched over into policies, with increased focus on testing and numbers, Henson said the position got a lot more into the realm of politics as you deal with the state legislature and handling the constant changes that came from the state adds another item to juggle.

As a superintendent, you don’t need state tests, as Henson says, to tell you how well a teacher teaches. “I can sit in a class for five minutes and tell you if a teacher can teach.”

In the face of everything, Henson said he wouldn’t burn any bridges about returning to education, but he’s enjoying his retirement.

Henson has already reached the “what’s next” point in his career as he retired last year. One year into retirement, he says he is just as busy as ever with his position on the Board of Tax Assessors and putting a daughter through college at the University of Georgia. On top of maintaining his own projects, he says he’s focusing on being a parent and husband and making up for time lost in his position as Superintendent.

Once he hit ten years in the office, Henson said he felt like he had done what he wanted, it was time to hand it over to someone else for their impressions and interpretations. Though retiring from his career, he didn’t fade into obscurity. With Stan Helton asking him to sit on the Board of Tax Assessors and others still seeking advice and counsel, he simply transitioned once more.

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A Valentine’s surprise at Pickens County Middle School

Community, Dragon's Corner

JASPER, Ga. – Many see Valentine’s Day as a day to show a little extra effort toward someone special. It is a day set aside to spend a little extra effort to show someone they are special and worth the effort. Regardless of how or why it was created, it is generally a special day for those who celebrate it.

Aden Fillion, the boy delivering flowers to every girl in PCMS

Aden Fillion, the boy delivering flowers to every girl in PCMS

You, like me, may think about love and this day while having someone specific in mind, a significant other, a family member, or something of that sort. Look around and you can find all sorts of reminders of romantic and amorous love. But once in a while, someone will come along and remind you of true compassion for others, a love that supersedes the romance that can give us tunnel vision.

Enter Aden Fillion. He is a sixth-grader in Pickens County Middle School (PCMS). And last year at Valentine’s Day, Aden got an idea.

As he looked around his classes on this day, he began to notice something that bothered him. Not every girl was getting a candy gram for Valentine’s Day. On a day that is meant to show how much love there is in this world, there were girls in his school that were “left out” as he says.

When he noticed this, Aden said he felt the pain: “When they felt left out, I felt left out.” It was something he couldn’t stand to see. The thought came to Aden that he wanted to make sure every girl got one of these candy grams on Valentine’s Day.

Aden Fillion, left, stopping for a photo with his mother, Jessica Fillion, right.

Aden Fillion, left, stopping for a photo with his mother, Jessica Fillion, right.

Though he didn’t speak of the issue right away, the thought stayed with him until September. Speaking to his parents, Jessica and Clint Fillion, Aden revealed his hope for this year’s Valentine’s surprise. After debating on how to accomplish this feat, Jessica eventually decided to try setting up a GoFundMe page. She admits now that she wasn’t too sure about how much success the page would get.

Two days later, $300 had already been raised for Aden to accomplish his plan. A feat that shocked Jessica and emboldened Aden. With everything ready, the Fillions needed only to wait until this month to place the order, keeping the secret until now.

Aden stops by the front office to deliver flowers to the front office staff of PCMS.

Aden stops by the front office to deliver flowers to the front office staff of PCMS.

Always having been very compassionate and empathetic, Jessica says her son Aden constantly wants to give people things. Constantly wanting to see people smile, Jessica added of Aden, “He is very loving.”

The awe of the day was shared by seventh-grade teacher Sue Watters, who helped run the carnation orders with BETA club. Watters stated, “Wow, for a kid to have that level of empathy is unheard of in middle school.”

While in the past, the counselor’s office has handled candy grams, according to Watters, this year changed as the BETA club decided to handle the Valentine’s items. Thinking about February as Heart Health Month in addition to Valentine’s Day, BETA decided to do carnations instead of the candy grams.

As Jessica and Aden began talking with Watters about Valentine’s Day and what he had planned, they began planning and ordering for all 225 girls in PCMS. There was only one issue – last year’s candy grams cost $1, but this year’s carnations cost $2.

As of today, few people have been privy to this plan, but every one of 225 girls is walking out of their middle school today with a carnation, and a reminder of the love that people can have for each other. Through community support and a little help from BETA, Aden’s plan has been fulfilled, and one student reminded everyone of what we can accomplish for each other.

Aden begins delivering flowers with a personal friend Harley.

Aden begins delivering flowers with a personal friend Harley.

What Aden didn’t know was that BETA was selling the carnations to help the seventh grade finance their field trip to Atlanta in April. With some students needing help to be able to go on the trip, Aden’s plan snowballed larger than even he had intended. Diving into his plan, Aden said he had never gotten discouraged. Talking about the plan, he kept going back to saying, “I wanted them to feel happy.”

Each flower that he sent came with a note attached, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” A quote from Albus Dumbledore in the book, and film, Harry Potter is a note from Aden and his mother’s favorite movie to explain his hope for those of his class, a note of the happiness he wanted for them.

 

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Bond Set at $25,000 for Pickens High School Teacher Daniel Culbreth

Featured, News

According to information received earlier tonight, October 7th 2016, bond has been set for Daniel Culbreth in the amount of $25,000.   Culbreth is currently trying to make bond as of 10pm Friday night according to Pickens County Sheriff’s office.  Bond Conditions are as follows:    (See Below)

Click here to see Bond Conditions

Mr. Daniel Culbreth, a math teacher at Pickens High School, was arrested on Thursday night (October 6, 2016) for Computer Exploitation of Children and Sexual Assault by Persons with Supervisory Authority.  Culbreth, also a PCHS running back coach was arrested for DUI of alcohol in 2015. (see arrest/booking report below).

The arrest came during an investigation into inappropriate communications with a student. Led by Detective Steven Holmes of the Pickens Sheriff’s Office, who also serves as an agent for the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, detectives began following up on a tip that Mr. Culbreth had been using the popular teen social media app Snapchat to communicate with female students.

According to the information received by detectives, the content of some of his communication was highly inappropriate. After receiving and verifying this information, Pickens Sheriff’s Office Detectives executed a search warrant on Mr. Culbreth’s Snapchat account and found this information to be true.

Culbreth Arrested for Inappropriate Contact with Students

News

Mr. Daniel Culbreth, a teacher and Football Coach for Pickens County, has been arrested by authorities relating to Inappropriate Contact with Children.

According to Captain Kris Stancil of the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, authorities began an investigation last week after receiving information from a citizen who had “overheard or overseen” questionable contact involving Culbreth. Following up on warrants issued for copies of conversations across SnapChat, a popular modern application for Social Media, authorities have found numerous contacts involving questionable content of conversations as well as nude photos being both sent and received.

Stancil did state at least five students have been identified so far ranging between 16 and 17 years of age and at least one possible instance has involved physical sexual activity. However, Stancil declined to give an actual total number involved due to the continuing investigation and evidence leading them to believe still more students could be involved.

While investigations like this can sometimes take much longer before an actual arrest is made as Stancil stated, “typically we would love to wait until we have been able to execute all warrants and gather all the data,” the Sheriff’s office moved quickly to make an arrest this time “because he was a teacher and we had confirmed that he was having physical contact and cyber contact with the students, we couldn’t leave him in a classroom setting. Our number one priority is the safety of the students so we had to move forward on that.”

On October 6, Culbreth was arrested on school property after he returned from a football game, though Stancil stated he was taken into custody out of sight of students and staff without incident. The arrest could culminate in additional charges or even changes to the current charges, Computer Exploitation of Children and Sexual Assault by Persons with Supervisory Authority, as the investigation continues.

When asked, Stancil stated current evidence leads authorities to believe this action has been going on several months, one potential involvement could include a student from last year now in college, and that he was alone in this actions. The investigation could continue to uncover more information or previous action as it expands to other social media sites and personal electronics and devices. This continuation is to further explore how far the contact went. When asked, Stancil stated there is no evidence at this point to indicate Culbreth saved the images or posted them to any websites or that he forced himself physically onto any students, but the investigation was ongoing.

Culbreth was previously arrested one charges of DUI last year. FYN attempted to ask Board of Education Attorney Phil Landrum about the incident and the Board’s response. While Landrum confirmed the Board does not automatically terminate a teacher due to DUI, he did state that discipline for the infraction was handled internally in the School System. However, Landrum declined to comment on what discipline was enacted.

Being a Coach for the School System as well, FYN asked Head Coach Chris Parker about the incident. The only comment Parker would make was that he was unaware of the actions and that Culbreth was, “Obviously, no longer on his staff.” His focus, he stated, was on his players now, and getting them ready to play.

Considering the students, Stancil assured FYN that students involved were being monitored closely by the school system and the Sheriff’s Office was offering any assistance be it Resource Officers, Sheriff, Deputies, or any Command Staff in participation for the school and the students safety they could possibly offer.

Stancil also went further to urge parents to get more involved in their child’s social media, who they are “friending,” and what sort of contact is taking place especially if they have “friended” Culbreth. He also urged parents to get online and check out the Georgia Buraeu of Investigation Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The Sheriff’s Office is also urging people who believe their children were involved with Culbreth to contact their Criminal Investigation Division at 706-253-8935. He offered assurances to any who step forward that the Sheriff’s office would protect not only their identity but also their story and integrity, and that even if they feel evidence is gone or has been destroyed, there are ways of recovering evidence.

Culbreth has already been to his first appearance in court today, October 7, for the issue to begin basic court proceedings including discussion of a possible bond hearing, his rights, and the coming litigation.

Click Here to read the Sheriff’s Office Media Release or check below to listen to the full Press Conference held by Captain Kris Stancil.

Author

Updated: Pickens County High School Teacher Arrested for Inappropriate Contact with Students

Featured, News

Mr. Daniel Culbreth, a math teacher at Pickens High School, was arrested on Thursday night (October 6, 2016) for Computer Exploitation of Children and Sexual Assault by Persons with Supervisory Authority.  Culbreth, also a PCHS running back coach was arrested for DUI of alcohol in 2015. (see arrest/booking report below). The arrest came during an investigation into inappropriate communications with a student. Led by Detective Steven Holmes of the Pickens Sheriff’s Office, who also serves as an agent for the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, detectives began following up on a tip that Mr. Culbreth had been using the popular teen social media app Snapchat to communicate with female students. According to the information received by detectives, the content of some of his communication was highly inappropriate. After receiving and verifying this information, Pickens Sheriff’s Office Detectives executed a search warrant on Mr. Culbreth’s Snapchat account and found this information to be true.

booking-report-edited

201610071217arrestboo-report-1

Numerous Pickens High school students were identified in the content of Mr. Culbreth’s Snapchat account. The content indicates that Culbreth had engaged in inappropriate conversations with several students. As a result, search warrants were obtained which led to additional information being gathered. This information together with multiple interviews with students verified Mr. Culbreth had multiple cyber relationships with students and had a physical relationship with at least one student.

Once verified, Mr. Culbreth was arrested without incident and is currently being held at the Pickens County Adult Detention Center. He is awaiting a First Appearance Hearing before a Judge to determine if bond will be set.

Detectives are also examining all evidence, and additional charges may be forthcoming.

Sheriff Donnie Craig stated, “In cases like this, nobody wins.” He went on to explain, “Yes, we may have made a good arrest, but a number of teenage girls have been made victims by someone that we, as parents, have entrusted to care for them.”

The Pickens Sheriff’s Office is urging parents to be very proactive in knowing how their kids are using social media. Detective Steven Holmes urges parents to “know who your kids are talking to and what they are sending over these sites.” If you believe that your child may have been a victim of inappropriate communication with Mr. Daniel Culbreth, you can contact the Criminal Investigation Division of the Pickens Sheriff’s Office at 706-253-8935.

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to prevent your child from becoming a victim of internet crimes, please visit http://www.gaicactaskforcecom.

Marc Urbach 6/13/16

GMFTO
Constitutional expert, Supreme Court expert, maybe the best in the republic pertaining to how the Court unconstitutionally removed FIVE religious freedoms from the schools and society. A man who believes in republican principles, loyal & dedicated Orthodox Jew, former teacher, journalist and author of “BELIEVE, Do We Need a Third Great Awakening”
Find his book on amazon.com
Marc Alan Urbach
email  marccc67@yahoo.com
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Town Hall, Fannin Teachers concerned with Vague answers on Merit Pay

News

 

Fannin County educators welcomed the opportunity to speak to Georgia’s Speaker of the House, Rep. David Ralston district 7 about sweeping education reforms proposed by Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Committee (read the Commission’s report).  Speaker Ralston helped organize the Fannin County Teacher Town Hall, the 2nd in a series question and answer meetings for his 3rd district teachers.  Accompanying him were two legislators instrumental in delivering Gov. Deal’s initiatives to the Georgia Assembly:  Rep. Coleman, who is Chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. England, who is Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.  Over well over 100 Fannin educators attended the Dec. 17th meeting.

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The first Teacher Town Hall meeting in Gilmer County gave the Representatives and teachers state-wide a chance to test out proposals in the report.  So, during the Fannin County Teacher Town Hall meeting, all participants, Speaker Ralston, Reps. Coleman and England and Fannin County educators, were more resolute in their remarks.  Most Fannin County educators read from prepared questions and examples to ensure including real classroom situations they experienced and the effect that years of education reform initiatives and the proposed reforms have on their personal attitudes to teaching.

Speaker Ralston reiterated his fundamental disagreement with Gov. Deal about requiring merit-based pay for educators entering teaching in Georgia after 2017.  He believes that educating children is not something that is quantifiable and measurable because public education takes all types of children. Additionally, Ralston feels that the uniqueness of each classroom’s student population makes it difficult to come up with a measuring stick applicable to enough classrooms to go down the road of merit-based pay.

Ralston also stated his unease with the recommendation that local school districts will be deciding the district-specific metrics for merit-based pay.  This brought up an often overlooked aspect of merit-based pay; who is deciding the performance metrics.  According to the Education Reform Commission report, local districts will have flexibility to set the metrics depending on the academic and community needs of the local district.  School boards and system administrators will also have power to change performance metrics at any time and the right to incorporate training and education into these metrics.  In fact, 178 public charter school districts have the flexibility to create their own performance metrics right now.

Ralston also showed more hesitancy in bringing some education reforms, especially merit-based pay, before the Georgia House this year.  He cited his disagreement with some aspects of the report and that this year is an election year.  Indeed, in the upcoming Georgia Assembly, the competition for floor time is competitive because casino style gambling and religious liberty bills are also slated for debate in 2016.  He also repeated his strong message to Gilmer County educators that just because recommendations are in a report, it doesn’t mean that they are law.

A new subject England brought up is teacher retirement.  He related that Georgia’s Teacher Retirement System Fund is one of the best managed funds in North America and he will not fix something that isn’t broken.  Ralston was stronger about changes in teacher retirement.  He said, “As long as I am in this job, we will not touch teacher retirement.”

As before, Rep. Coleman covered education initiatives present in the report.  He, as well as England and Ralston, champion how the future reforms and newly-developed current programs recognize each student as an individual learner with a unique learning style and time line for successfully progression.  Several times the three representatives acknowledged each student brings personal situations like a disability, home life and parental support, social class and English language ability that affect how the student behaves in school and internalizes knowledge.  Coleman praised the current “Move On When Ready” program that gives high school students the opportunity to earn technical and college credit in subjects while still in high school.  Fannin County School System Superintendent Henson agrees that “Move On When Ready” has increased the quality of education for Fannin students. Peppered throughout Coleman’s comments was that changing education takes communication.  Educators are welcome to attend House Education Committee meetings and give comments.

Coleman offered more information about how the state will encourage, prepare, and stream-line the process for young adults to become educators.  Among his suggestions are getting rid of “fluff” courses in teacher education, extending student teaching to one year and reducing university studies to three years.  Possible teacher preparation pathways will become part of Career and Technical Education. Coleman, unlike the proposed merit-based pay metric, emphasized the importance of continuing teacher education. He says that his additional degree in Reading Instruction, which was encouraged through pay increase for additional training, is his most valued degree.  Fannin County High School teacher Bubba Gibbs suggested increasing HOPE Scholarship funds for those studying education.  All three Representatives showed interest in this idea.

Coleman unveiled initiatives in the report that incentivize teachers to try out innovative classroom techniques.  Coleman didn’t say how incentivization nor merit-based pay will account for the fact that innovation can fail as much as succeed. Another way to bring innovation into the classroom, according to Coleman, is a district’s flexibility to hire adjunct instructors.  He gave the example of hiring a local engineer who may not have teaching experience to teach one class of high school physics. He did not say how the state will

At this meeting, Ralston told Fannin educators Gov. Deal’s perspective on the state of Georgia’s education.  He said that Gov. Deal feels the school system is broken.  Rep. Coleman, however, gave a different example of the quality of Georgia’s education.  He said Georgia was recently listed top nation to do business in because of the quality of its work force and training.  He added that businesses wouldn’t be coming to Georgia in the numbers that they are coming if the education system is broken. Ralston feels that public education can always be improved, but he doesn’t hold the strong negativity that Gov. Deal does.  Ralston also hopes that proposed initiatives will roll back the heavy-handedness of the State Department of Education’s in the function of local districts.

Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. England, presented funding aspects.  First off, he repeated his stance on merit-based pay stating that, left up to him, he would scrap the teacher pay proposal. Once again, he stated that the report’s proposed district funding schemes will give flexibility with accountability.  The benefit of flexibility is that money will follow the unique characteristic of a student, not just the number of students.  For example, the reform report defines a new category of student, economically disadvantaged.  This demographic category recognizes that districts with high poverty rates need strong afterschool academic, social, childcare and nutrition support. England recognized that in an economically disadvantaged school district, a teacher may only move a class two steps but those two steps are a giant leap. Though he gave several examples of benefits of flexibility, he did not clearly state where the accountability lay.

A new subject England brought up is teacher retirement.  He related that Georgia’s Teacher Retirement System Fund is one of the best managed funds in North America and he will not fix something that isn’t broken.  Ralston was stronger about changes in teacher retirement.  He said, “As long as I am in this job, we will not touch teacher retirement.”

As before, Rep. Coleman covered education initiatives present in the report.  He, as well as England and Ralston, champion how the future reforms and newly-developed current programs recognize each student as an individual learner with a unique learning style and time line for successfully progression.  Several times the three representatives acknowledged each student brings personal situations like a disability, home life and parental support, social class and English language ability that affect how the student behaves in school and internalizes knowledge.  Coleman praised the current “Move On When Ready” program that gives high school students the opportunity to earn technical and college credit in subjects while still in high school.  Fannin County School System Superintendent Henson agrees that “Move On When Ready” has increased the quality of education for Fannin students. Peppered throughout Coleman’s comments was that changing education takes communication.  Educators are welcome to attend House Education Committee meetings and give comments.

Coleman offered more information about how the state will encourage, prepare, and stream-line the process for young adults to become educators.  Among his suggestions are getting rid of “fluff” courses in teacher education, extending student teaching to one year and reducing university studies to three years.  Possible teacher preparation pathways will become part of Career and Technical Education. Coleman, unlike the proposed merit-based pay metric, emphasized the importance of continuing teacher education. He says that his additional degree in Reading Instruction, which was encouraged through pay increase for additional training, is his most valued degree.  Fannin County High School teacher Bubba Gibbs suggested increasing HOPE Scholarship funds for those studying education.  All three Representatives showed interest in this idea.

Coleman unveiled initiatives in the report that incentivize teachers to try out innovative classroom techniques.  Coleman didn’t say how incentivization nor merit-based pay will account for the fact that innovation can fail as much as succeed. Another way to bring innovation into the classroom, according to Coleman, is a district’s flexibility to hire adjunct instructors.  He gave the example of hiring a local engineer who may not have teaching experience to teach one class of high school physics. He did not say how the state will control for a district’s heavy reliance on part-time adjunct teachers.

Fannin County School System educators’ comments and questions proved their commitment to the education profession and Fannin County schools goes beyond pay.  Fannin teacher Todd Garren said that Fannin County School System is a system of teachers that gives everything for their students and educators don’t enter the profession because of pay.  They become teachers because they believe in the fundamental responsibility of a community to educate its future community leaders. To Garren, giving everything also means being a model of lifelong learning for students.  Training costs money and takes time away from your own children; teachers should be compensated for that believes Garren.

Middle school teacher Barry Abott talked about how dire teacher recruitment and retention is for Georgia.  He cited the drop in students enrolling in teacher education courses.  At Kennesaw State University there is a 20% drop and a 15% drop at the University of Georgia.  Additionally, he said, Georgia teachers have not had an across-the-board raise in seven years and, currently, Georgia teachers’ salaries are $4000 below the national average. The three representatives agreed that it is a problem in the making and promised to see if states paying more than Georgia are having drops in their teacher recruitment and how merit-based pay is affecting recruitment and retention in other states.

In a later interview with FetchyYourNews.com Fannin County School Superintendent Mark Hanson gave a franker description of how Fannin County educators feel.  “We are at our wit’s end,” he said. Beginning with “No Child Left Behind” in 2001, Fannin County students and educators have experienced excessive testing, constantly changing methods of teacher evaluation and more accountability which requires hiring more administrators but not receiving more funding for the additional responsibilities.  Above all is the vagueness for educators and students. More changes are on the way, but no one has given a consistent answer about what is new and what we need to do.

The vagueness for both students and teachers was underlined by Fannin teacher David Dyer’s example of the end of course tests that his 12th grade Economics students recently took. The test, required by Georgia, counts for 20% of the students’ course grades.  Before the test, neither students nor teachers received information about how the answers are evaluated.  Also, when the state returned test scores, students nor teachers knew how tests were graded.  Because of this, the students still don’t know how they should improve and Dyer does not have the information which will help him improve his classes’ quality.  Also, Dyer questioned that if the state cannot tell students what they are graded on, how can teachers expect the state to tell them what they will be evaluated on.

In terms of teacher recruitment and retention, several second- and third-generation Fannin teachers stated they have advised their children not to become a teacher.  Their advice originates from the consistent changes and vagueness in Georgia’s education policies, not concern about pay.  In fact, Superintendent Henson, a second-generation Fannin County educator, has given his 15 year-old daughter the same advice.

Teacher Sarah Welch showed how merit-based pay will affect comradery within a school.  She spoke about her friend who teaches in Gwinnett County, a system which already uses merit-based pay.  The Gwinnett County teacher and her colleague taught exactly the same subject with exactly the same course goals.  In the end, one teacher received a merit pay increase and the other didn’t.   The teacher with merit pay felt guilty because the only difference between their classes was the students.

Superintendent Henson agrees that merit pay will divide teachers.  He prefers the traditional pay scale which uses training and experience to determine salary.  “It pays out fairly,” he said.

Next, a Fannin teacher questioned why children have power to influence his salary through tests tied to merit-based pay. Ralston agreed that students already have the feeling for which standardized tests evaluate teachers’ performance and could choose to retaliate against teachers.

As in the Gilmer County meeting, teachers criticized the amount of mandated testing.  According to the testing administrator for Fannin County, in the academic year 2014-2015, high school students took 7,619 mandated tests, which is approximately 9 tests per each of Fannin County’s 853 high school students. Superintendent Henson showed how testing takes away from instruction. Last year, 9th grade Fannin students lost 30 days of learning to testing.  Henson hints at the riddle of using more tests to quantify teacher ability.  He states, “Testing takes more and more instructional time away from classes to prove that teachers can teach.”

Since Ralston, Coleman and England’s examples of how proposed funding changes will affect Fannin County schools and citizens were vague, FetchyYourNews.com asked Superintendent Henson to explain.  He said that Georgia has a lengthening tradition of underfunding education.  His example is that in fiscal year 2003 Fannin County received from the 60% from the state, 30% from local funding and 9% from the federal government for education expenses; whereas in 2015, it was 37% from the state, 57% from the county and 3% from the federal government.  His fear is under the guise of local flexibility, the state will send one lump sum of money to Fannin County and it will be up to the citizens to stabilize funding and maintain Fannin school’s excellent education quality through property tax increases.  He says Fannin County is lucky because it is a resort community which has a low number of students compared to the property tax revenue thus, Fannin has not had to raise property taxes to fund education.  However, he says, the day will come when Fannin County has to raise property taxes because the state has lowered funding and, due to merit-pay, increased competition among districts for excellent teachers.

In upcoming articles, FetchYourNews.com interviews Reps. Coleman and England about the Fannin County Teacher Town Hall meeting.  You can watch the Fannin County Teacher Town Hall meeting at FetchYourNews.com

 

Correction:  In the article Georgia’s Speaker of the House David Ralston Listens to Gilmer County Teachers, FetchYourNews.com incorrectly identified Rep. Coleman as the Chair of the Education Reform Commission.  Dr. Charles Knapp is the Chair of the Education Reform Commission.

 

 

 

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