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Gordon BOE searches for new superintendent
• Gordon County Schools opens applications immediately after Superintendent Susan Remillard announced her early retirement.

Chariman Charlie Walraven of the Gordon County Board of Education says the board is hoping to begin interviewing candidates to replace Superintendent Susan Remillard by the middle of May, aiming for a start date of July 1.

Though originally planning to retire when her contract ended in June of 2020, Remillard announced her altered plans during Monday's board of education meeting. At the meeting, she said after much thought she ultimately made the decision to conclude her time in the district a year earlier than anticipated — in July.

With Remillard's retirement now just three months away, the district is starting to accept applications for superintendent, who would oversee more than 6,600 students and 824 staff members.

The board released the application link on Tuesday for those interested in the position, saying the deadline to apply is April 23. Walraven said the two-week period was primarily chosen because the board was on a significant time crunch, adding that two weeks should provide enough time for interested candidates to apply.

"I don't know of anyone specifically," Walraven said of internal candidates who might be applying, adding that the board would not favor district employees over external applicants during the decision process. "We have a lot of good people here but we also want to have an open mind and hire the best person for Gordon County Schools."

As far as qualifications, Walraven said the application lists out what the board is looking for — someone with a specialist degree, leadership background and extensive experience in education. Walraven said he expected a good amount of applications to be turned in for consideration.

After April 23, he said it would take a bit of time for board members to review the applications and narrow them down. "We don't have a timeline, but we're hoping to extend interviews by the middle of May," Walraven said.

The board chairman said on such a short notice, him and other board members will be working hard to make a decision as soon as possible, with the estimated start date for the new superintendent to be July 1.

One of Remillard's original reasons for staying until June 2020 was to help a new superintendent get adjusted to the job. While her plans have changed, Walraven said if the board makes a decision before June, he predicted Remillard would still be willing to walk her replacement through the daily responsibilities of a superintendent.

Remillard has been in the education sector for 30 years. She's been working for Gordon County Schools for the past 12 years, starting out as curriculum director before becoming superintendent. She said following her retirement, her and her husband plan to retire to their house in Alabama.

Further details on the application process are available at gcbe.org/Page/9296 or on teachgeorgia.org.


Jasperse reflects on education updates
• Among the list of influential bills passed by Georgia's legislators this year are several aimed to improve education.

During the 2019 General Assembly session, significant improvements were made for Georgia school systems, including teachers' raises and an increased focus on school safety, said Rep. Rick Jasperse.

Jasperse, R-Jasper, serves as the chair of the education committee in the Georgia House and said this year was an important one for schools. Having the responsibility of viewing every education-related bill before it gets presented to the House, Jasperse is familiar with the bills that were passed to make schools safer and more student-focused.

In his opinion, education is one of the most important parts of a society, and Jasperse said the education committee is determined to making schools safe and to improving the opportunities offered to Georgia's students.

Teachers' raises

At the end of February, legislators approved Gov. Brian Kemp's proposed budget for 2020, which included substantial raises for teachers. According to the budget, each teacher would receive a $3,000 pay raise, and although it's short of his campaigned promise of $5,000, this is still the largest pay increase for teachers in Georgia's history.

"This is the greatest impact for education across the entire state," Jasperse said, "and there's still promise for more (pay raises)."

Jasperse said where this pay increase will make a significant difference is in the rural counties that don't have as many resources as bigger districts. He is glad to see teachers finally being rewarded for their hard work, admitting that Georgia's educators have waited a long time to receive a raise.

Mental health

Also approved in Kemp's budget was his plan to put a mental health counselor in all of the 343 public high schools to confront students' mental health issues. Kemp said this would help school staff "engage with struggling students and help provide the resources needed to prevent disruptive, aggressive and potentially violent behavior."

Jasperse said, though it is unfortunate for schools to have this specific need, this section of the budget reflects the time that we're in.

"A lot of people don't want to talk about mental health," Jasperse said. "But there are all sorts of issues out there and this is going to help our students."

The representative added on that one way to be proactive against future behavioral problems is to provide resources for students who might be battling mental health issues.

School safety

Another significant update, Jasperse said, is the state's budgeted $30,000 per school, which will be specifically offered to support and upgrade school safety procedures, equipment and employees.

Though each school is able to decide for themselves what to spend the money on, Jasperse said it could range from fencing to security video equipment to metal detectors, but ultimately it will depend on the needs of each school.

In addition, Senate Bill 15, if approved by Kemp, will require routine safety drills in public schools and communication between school districts and local law enforcement officers. It would also establish a program for certifying public safety personnel to be school safety coaches.

Jasperse said these updates will encourage efficient transparency between local officers and school districts, creating a safer and more proactive environment within schools.

Dyslexia bill

Both the Senate and the House passed Senate Bill 48, which would require the Department of Education to test students within public schools to positively identify students with dyslexia at younger ages.

The bill was written by Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, and calls for statewide screening programs for all kindergarten students and an additional referral system targeting students in grades one through three. SB 48, according to Jasperse, would permit the DOE to begin a pilot program that would help determine how to best address dyslexia in schools and to make sure it's recognized.

"We are one of the only states that's not addressing dyslexia in schools," Jasperse said. "This will allow the DOE to treat dyslexia in different ways depending on the size of each school."

During the House's consideration of SB 48, Calhoun City Schools' Director of Exceptional Student Services Hayley Gilreath said being able to offer more resources for students with dyslexia would not only improve the process of education, but it would also help staff understand effects and challenges caused by dyslexia.

Computer science

Also in this year's session were important updates regarding computer science opportunities within schools.

Following the passing of Senate Bill 108, each high school in the state should have at least one computer science class offered by 2023.

Not only are there budgeted funds for training staff members to teach these classes, but there is also the option of schools using a DOE-monitored online Virtual School to fulfill this requirement.

"Michele Taylor is already doing this at Calhoun City Schools," Jasperse said. "But all the schools in Georgia aren't as affluent as Calhoun schools, in all honesty."

Jasperse said this new requirement for high schools will be able to expand the horizons of the future leaders of the state. After all, he said, taking a computer science class might reveal to students a job they didn't know of, or help them determine a career path to pursue.

"We just want to make sure kids get awareness that there might be a job out there for them," Jasperse said. "It's important that we're meeting the needs of the kids. If we don't do that, we're moving backward."


Local crosses Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia
Calhoun's Joe Norman joins international camel caravan in Rub al Khali desert

In mid-February, Calhoun resident Joe Norman was beside his mother at a Rome hospital — a place he had frequently been since she was admitted on Dec. 11 — when he got the call. The person on the other line was extending the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to join a camel caravan crossing the Rub al Khali desert in Saudi Arabia. But with his mother's health on his mind, he turned them down.

While Norman was on the phone, his mother was listening. So when she heard him turn down the offer, she looked to him and mouthed out the words, "You need to do this." She could not speak, a hole in her throat prevented as much. But the message from her was clear enough — go.

"I asked her another 20 times to the point I annoyed the hell out of her," he said, still worried about leaving the side of his mother, who had suffered from pulmonary edema, cardiac arrest, pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome).

Norman called back, and three days later he was on a flight from Atlanta heading for Saudi Arabia.

"I almost didn't go to Saudi Arabia because of her experience," he said. "It was a very whirlwind trip."

A new adventure

Norman — a native of Charlotte — had only recently received word of the Rakayib camel caravan, which was set to become the first international caravan of its kind, at the last minute. A friend of his had shared the link to the application web page with him, thinking it would do him good. His friend had hiked the Pacific Crest Trial with a Saudi Arabian man who had talked about the trek across The Empty Quarter, as it's known. So he applied, but did not think he would be selected.

Between Norman and his friend, he was the one chosen. And two days after being accepted, he received a short email, requesting a copy of his passport and a photo of him. He found himself wondering if this trip was even real, with the email not displaying the formal language of an invite to a trip of this size. A few quick internet searches led him to conclusion that it very much was real, and he suddenly had to find money for a flight to the Middle East.

With half his ticket paid for by the Camel Club of Saudi Arabia, which is overseen by the king and prince and was organizing the caravan, Norman found him once again flying over Europe, specifically the Balkans, which he had just recently called home.

"It was really cool because when I was flying there we flew over the Balkans, where I was living for the last year abroad. It was cool to flyover where your last adventure was and ... know you're starting a whole new adventure," he said.

Even though Norman had found himself in Muslim countries before — Bosnia, Morocco and Albania — he was still nervous about the unfamiliarity of Saudi Arabia.

"Going to the middle east is something I think a lot of people have a misconception about," he said. "You start thinking the worst aspects of it all."

But soon after being picked up from the airport in the country's capital Riyadh, Norman saw something absolutely American — fast food, lots of it. Driving through the city he saw Chuck E. Cheese's, Cheesecake Factory and Church's Chicken, which actually goes by the name Texas Chicken in Saudi Arabia. It seemed this country knew much more about America than he originally believed, particularly many of the locals he met on the trip had at one time been students in the United States.

After two days in Riyadh, ensuring he had the supplies needed, Norman flew to the town of Wadi ad-Dawasir. From there, he went 15 hours by bus to reach the start of the journey, 20 miles north of the border with Yemen (it was north of any combat zone in the ongoing war between the two nations). And it was there, "in the middle of nowhere," where Norman began to realize what he had committed to was actually happening.

"That's when it actually felt like this a legit thing," he said of looking out into the expanse of the desert and seeing a large tent camp set up. "It made you feel very small and very humbled."

Finding a camel

There in the camp with Norman were 19 other international participants — from places like Mexico, Russia, Croatia, Germany, New Zealand and Australia — as well as 57 participants from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. More than two dozen more people made up the support team.

The Bedouin, the camel herders who reside in the desert, were fascinated with foreigners, Norman said, since tourism to the country is virtually nonexistent. He shared a meal with them and the other, eating sheep and rice with his right hand — the left hand in never used for eating since it is the hand used to clean oneself.

On his first morning, Norman awoke to see more than 100 camels off in the distance. This first day was laid back, other than having to select a camel for the journey. He walked the lines of the camels, eventually coming upon an elderly-looking fella. He saddled it up and took it around the valley, seeming to find his match.

On his second ride on the camel, two of the locals had approached him to tell him the camel he'd chosen had a bad attitude. Norman brushed their words off, believing he had made the right choice. However, the next day when he went out, he could not find it.

After talking with the Sudanese men who cared for the camels, Norman was able to find the camel he'd chosen, in the hands of the two men who warned of him of it the day before.

"They wanted the camel so they were trying to do a little trick on me," he laughed.

Following a talk with the organizers, the camel found its way back to Norman, something it seemed to be grateful for. However, this little bonding moment did not last long.

"The bonding moment lasted for two days and then after that it became a grumpy and ornery camel," Norman said.

The journey

After two days in camp, the caravan started out on the 375-mile journey, leaving in the morning before the sun reached its burning peak. Over the initial days, the caravan traveled for 15 to 20 miles each day, moving up to 25 miles in the later stages. For three to five days, they would ride, followed by a day of rest. On rest days, Norman would catch up on sleep, wash clothes, eat, journal and play chess, he said.

In the early stage of the trip, the group ran into trouble — a water shortage. It seemed in calculating the water supply, organizers had failed to account for the water used in preparing the MREs, the ready-to-eat meals rationed for the group. Desperation set in, people positioned to take other's water and some drank camel water, "which came from wells and could irritate people's stomachs." However, the situation was corrected, and the caravan moved on.

One of the biggest challenges of the journey was learning how to ride a camel up and down the endless dunes of sand, said Norman, who had some experience in riding camels in Morocco. His experience with horses — he works at Iron Gate Horse Sanctuary in Waleska — helped in the process.

"I loved it," he said of learning to ride the camels, some of which were retired race camels. "It was definitely a good challenge."

A support crew followed the caravan, providing generators to aid the media members reporting on the historic journey while also providing charging capabilities for participants' cellphones. At times, he was not a fan of the support crew, as watching vehicles drive across the natural landscape seemed to disturb the serenity of the trek. But he understood its purpose, as the group was taken through a foreign and hostile environment, he said.

For much of the journey, all to see is the sand and the sun, Norman said. Though at one point, the caravan came upon a well of sulfur water, essentially a contraption of pipes sticking out of the desert floor. It was like a hot spring shower, he explained, refreshing after a day of riding.

During the day, temperatures reached above 100 degrees, but at night the temperature would drop and the air carried a chill, Norman explained. The temperature would also drop during sandstorms, which clouded the sky with sand. He explained the occurrence to being outside during a cloudy day, when you know the sun is there but you can't see it. The visibility is limited and the line of sight is enclosed, he added.

At night, when out looking at the stars, Norman said the horizon is clouded due to the sand in the air, unlike big sky country in the west, where stars can be seen from the horizon to the Milky Way.

The significance

Part of the significance of this particular trip was that a woman with royal blood rode it all the way through, becoming the first female to do so. Norman said this symbolized the changing social landscape of a country which has been seen on the world's stage as restrictive to women.

Another aspect was the journey's promotion of the cultural importance of camels to the region, a major component of the Camel Club's purpose. Also, having international participants went along with the intent of the country to show its openness to welcoming foreigners.

Of the three Americans in the caravan, Norman was the only one to complete its course. Stephen Bennett, an American artist, had to pull out early from riding due to back troubles, but stayed with the support team to continue his work on a project for the prince. Bennett painted a number of laminated boards, which members of the caravan each personally decorated one apiece, and when piece together, formed the face of the prince.

By the end of the trip, despite coming down with a throat infection, Norman had looked into staying in the Middle East for a wider tour. However, with the health of his mother on his mind and the expense of delaying his flight, he returned to Calhoun.

What's next

Over the coming weeks, Norman hopes to help his mother return home and then aid them in their transition back to Charlotte, following his stepdad's retirement in June.

But the next adventure for Norman remains on his mind. There has been talk of sailing around the South Pacific Ocean in traditional boats or riding a camel around the world, but those are just thoughts shared while journeying across the desert on the back of a camel. He's also looked to complete another thru-hike — he hiked the Appalacian Trail in 2005 and has since completed portions of the International Appalachian Trail in Quebec, Newfoundland, Ireland and Scotland.

"It feels good just to see the world. Some people feel content with staying at home and doing the same thing. Panama City in the summertime, Dollywood for springtime. The same vacations a lot of the time. That's fine, as long as they are happy and content," Norman said. "Some people have a natural gypsy, roaming heart, and I guess I have one. There is always a call to go — this desire for new adventures."


GC grad to compete in military skills competition

A 2016 Gordon Central graduate will put his skills to the test alongside fellow members of the University of North Georgia Ranger Challenge team on Friday and Saturday for the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition, held at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Nicholas Nesbitt, a senior at UNG, will compete against other colleges from the U.S. and other countries in Ranger Challenge, the varsity sport of Army ROTC. And the team is hoping for another successful performance following last year's finish as the top ROTC school, beating all 36 West Point teams on their home course and securing a fourth-place overall finish.

UNG's team earned its return to Sandhurst by winning the Spartan Ranger Challenge hosted by the First Brigade of U.S. Cadet Command from Oct. 25-27 at Fort Knox, Kentucky. UNG was the best among 18 teams from the nation's junior and senior military colleges at the October competition. UNG is one of 49 teams slated to compete at Sandhurst, including 19 from the four service academies, 16 ROTC teams and 14 international teams.

Teams compete against other colleges in events such as patrol, marksmanship, weapons assembly, one-rope bridge, grenade assault course, Army Physical Fitness Test, land navigation and a 20-kilometer road march. Nesbitt said the specific events in the competition are not known until the day of, but the skills needed for the events are disclosed in a "warning order." The skills needed for this year's competition is what landed him at West Point for the first time.

Last year, the events did not match his specific skill set, so other team members made the trip. But this year, with events seeming to be built around short distance and speed, Nesbitt's agility and strength have led him to the competition, he said.

Army Maj. Donovan Duke, an instructor in the Department of Military Science at UNG and coach for Ranger Challenge, said having some seniors in the program has helped strengthen the group's bonds.

Duke noted UNG's Ranger Challenge team has cadets who can provide comic relief, who are quiet and strong, who are natural leaders, and who are leaders who know when to follow.

"We have a good mix," Duke said.

Nesbitt is one of those seniors, who said his coach is stressing the power of positive affirmations. Nesbitt and the team were at West Point on Thursday, trying to keep loose and not expend themselves before competition.

Nesbitt has been on the team for three years, after participating in Junior ROTC and the Civilian Air Patrol throughout high school. That experience coupled with a fondness for camping and shooting made Ranger Challenge and UNG ROTC a proper fit, he said.

Throughout the school year, the Ranger Challenge team has fitness training every morning Monday through Friday, as well as training, known as labs, on tactics and techniques three days a week. It's an act in time management for Nesbitt, who balances the responsibilities of course work with Ranger Challenge.

"I have to have my priorities focused," he said, adding that a 19-hour course load last semester was particularly taxing.

After graduation, Nesbitt plans on going to U.S. Army flight school for helicopter pilots, where he will gain experience in the craft. Then his goal is fly medical helicopters for Northside Hospital in Atlanta, he said. His interest in flying was peaked from his time in the Civilian Air Patrol, he said, especially from training with Air Force pilots.

"I knew this is what I wanted to do," he said.

Nesbitt is a recipient of the Georgia Military Scholarship, which requires for him to stay in the Georgia Army National Guard for six years and he can be commissioned as an officer following graduation.


Young Artists

This artwork is from Sonoraville High School senior Ashlyn Boots-Cain.