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Online learning replaces emergency snow days
• Gordon BOE votes on snow days, future discussion looming on a cap on the number of consecutive online learning days.

At the Gordon County Board of Education meeting, members voted to follow surrounding counties in replacing snow days with online lesson plans posted by teachers. Moving forward, in the case of canceled school for emergency weather, students will be given online assignments and be able to communicate online with teachers from home.

Also during Monday's board meeting, a revised lawn care treatment bid from Trammel Lawn Care was approved for $354,348 after several months of negotiation.

At Friday's work session, Director of Technology Bryan Nicholson presented the results of a trial run online learning day that took place on the district's Jan. 29 snow day.

Surveys conducted by the technology department came back reporting 97 percent of teachers thought the online learning day served as a good replacement for snow days and better maintained students' focus when school returned to session.

Online learning days have already been implemented by surrounding districts such as Calhoun City Schools, Floyd County Schools, Gwinnett County Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools. This program ensures that missed school days due to

implement weather will not have to be made up, neither through built-in days nor extended calendars.

Superintendent Susan Remillard recommended the board approve inclement weather days to be replaced by online learning days.

Board member Eddie Hall said that while he viewed this plan as beneficial to student growth, he was also weary of having unlimited online learning days.

"I would like to see (this plan) capped out after a certain number of days," E. Hall said. "I don't want to lock ourselves in with that as our only option."

Members Chris Johnson and Dana Stewart expressed similar concerns. Johnson commented that while it is a good alternative for one or two snow days, it might need altering in the case of several consecutive days when school is called.

"I agree that we need a cap on how many days," Stewart said, adding on that Friday's work session expressed teacher's support of the new alternative plans.

Remillard said there would be an option for future adjusting the online learning plan and the board indicated they would like to retain the ability to alter the plan in the case of several consecutive missed days. Remillard also recommended the district's calendar still build in extra days for extended time off.

Following a vote in favor of replacing snow days with online learning days, the superintendent requested that the Jan. 29 snow day be replaced by the online learning trial run. The Dec. 11 snow day will be made up by having students come to school on March 15, which was originally scheduled to be a professional learning day for teachers.

The board approved of Trammel Lawn Care's treatment bid for $354,348 after months of negotiation. In November, the board voted to ask for a rebid following Trammel's first proposal, which was $426,536.50 to take care of the district's lawn care and athletic field maintenance.

The board voted to accept the plan for Trammel to mow the properties every 10 days, leaving room for adjustments if necessary.

Director of Finance Mendy Goble said the contract would be for one year with the option to extend it once a year over the next five years. Goble also said though there were six companies who provided bids, not all of the six provided enough information for the board to make a well-informed decision. Therefore, the two bids in consideration were Trammel and Exterior Inc. since they provided enough detail and a full proposal, according to Goble.

Board member Eddie Hall commented on behalf of the board that they were appreciative of the work Goble had done to save the district close to $100,000.

This treatment contract would include occasional playground mulching, a yearly trimming of trees and additional needs of the district regarding property maintenance.

Honored guests and families attend "Night to Shine"
• The Tim Tebow Foundation sponsors a prom-like event for individuals with special needs and their parents, bringing community together.

The international Tim Tebow Foundation sponsored a dance in Calhoun for individuals with special needs on Friday night, where guests and their families found a community ready to celebrate them through the night's festivities.

When Shawnda Martin was a student at Georgia College and State University, her professor encouraged the class to volunteer at a local Night to Shine dance where people with special needs are invited to dress up, enjoy refreshments and dance their heart out. But because she was on the softball team and had regular practices, she never got to partake in the event.

Now in her first year of teaching special education at Sonoraville High School, Martin wanted to plan a dance for the local community in order to bring Calhoun and Gordon County together.

She applied to be sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation in August, and after six months of planning, volunteer organizing and coordinating, the TTF-sponsored event finally came to fruition on Friday.

"It's a dance for people with special needs, but we've opened it to local high schools, the chamber, the resource center," said Martin after speaking to guests about the refreshments and activities offered at the dance. "I just posted it on social media and sent it through school emails and people just came to us to help out."

On Friday, when guests came to First Baptist Church — where the event was being hosted — they were able to not only dance with their host and friends, but also play corn hole, get their hair and makeup done, take rides in a horse and carriage, enjoy refreshments donated by local organizations and take pictures at the photo booth.

They were greeted by applauding volunteers as they walked on the red carpet, met their host for the evening and were interviewed by Sierra Maddox, a junior at Calhoun High School who served as the event's red carpet host.

Martin originally just wanted to do something to help bring the community together and show their support for individuals with physical or mental limitations. Yet, in addition to the TTF, Mohawk and Shaw Industries both provided donations to sponsor the event.

"Night to Shine" is a Christian-centered prom night experience specifically hosted by the TTF for people with special needs 14 and older. The event has been held at churches around the world for the past five years, and in 2018, the foundation hosted approximately 100,000 "honored guests" at their 655 worldwide events.

Hosts, or volunteers, are paired with the honored guests and escort them through the course of the evening, helping them with whatever they might need or taking them wherever they wanted to go.

The TTF hosts other projects to aid and celebrate individuals on the margins of society, including projects that focus on families wanting to adopt children with special needs, children with life-threatening illnesses and orphans in undeveloped countries.

As for how the foundation has affected the community on a local level, parents and friends of Friday's honored guests said it was about time an event like this came to Calhoun.

"Calhoun has needed this, and what Shawnda did for these kids is amazing," said Carrie Key as her daughter Grace danced the "Cupid Shuffle" with her friends and host. "Honestly there's very little here and it's very hard for someone with a disability to transition out of school and into work."

Key said Grace, who graduated from Calhoun High School in 2017, has struggled to find the help and support she needs, but that it was encouraging to see the community rally behind individuals with special needs, and hopes to see more similar events pop up in the area.

First Baptist's Minister of Students Steven Waters, though he was a part of the planning process, said Martin was the central point person for the event, coordinating most details.

"Shawnda came up to me one day and asked if we would consider helping host the event," said Waters on Friday night from the parent's break room, which was stocked with snacks and food for parents who accompanied their children to the dance.

"This is the first time Gordon County and Calhoun have hosted this event, and seeing everyone working together to have a great event for the kids and adults who are attending ... it's fantastic," the minister said. "The kids can really shine."

Alecia Segursky, who serves as both the special education coordinator for Gordon County Schools and the director of Gordon County Special Olympics, said she was so excited to be able to see Martin's idea in action. When asked how she participated in the planning and coordination, Segursky pointed back to Martin, saying, "It's all her."

"I will say this, Shawnda is an on-fire, passionate teacher," Segursky said. "I told (Martin's) mom earlier today she must be so proud of her daughter."

After taking a break from making sure the event was running smoothly, Martin finally commented on the progress of the event and said she was still nervous, but that it was exciting to see everyone having a good time.

"Words can't explain how excited I've been for this," Martin said. "After the initial shock of it being here already, I'm still nervous, but it's been a great way to show God's love."

Sonoraville alum Waters wins nationwide Disney competition
• A senior at SCAD, Zeke Waters won the 2019 Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition.

Zeke Waters and his team of college friends were declared as first place winners after competing against teams from across the country during the 2019 Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition, which took place last week.

Waters, a 2015 graduate of Sonoraville High School, is currently a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design, where he's been able to explore his passion for scene entertainment and creative designing. And during his studies, he's come across the Walt Disney Imaginations Design Competition multiple times.

And after watching some of his older friends enter the competition when he was an underclassman, he and a few of his SCAD friends decided to form a team together and enter into the 2019 competition.

The Imaginations Design Competition was started in 1991 by Imagineering Executive Marty Sklar with the purpose of seeking out and nurturing the next generation of diverse Imagineers, according to a press release from Walt Disney Imagineering. The competition is open to college students across the country, and offers an opportunity for them to design an experience that could potentially be incorporated in future Disney theme parks.

Waters' team was on the list of the six finalists, which resulted in his entire team receiving an all-expenses paid trip to Walt Disney Imagineering in California, where they presented their projects to Imagineering executives and competed for awards during the week of Feb. 4-8. The top six teams also had the opportunity to meet Disney Imagineers and interview for internships during their trip.

During the initial stages of their project, Waters and his team — which consists of fellow SCAD students Carolyn Teves, Nicholas Hammond and Remi Jeffrey-Coker — decided to choose a focus location through the theme of the hanging gardens of Babylon, which they historically placed in Iraq.

"The Rose of Babylon," the title of their project, is a botanical experience for people of all ages and a modern re-imagining of ancient Babylon, and it's meant to inspire a rebuilding of Iraq. This interactive exhibit allows guests to experience ancient Middle East and contribute to the spread of resources and new life, according to the Disney press release.

Waters' team created an experience that was "punctuated by the miraculous Hanging Gardens where guests can bask in the glory of agriculture from around the world and actively contribute to spread of resources and the growth of new life," according to a news release from Walt Disney Imagineering.

"It was a challenge but we wanted to convey a feeling of neighborhood and community through our experience," Waters said. "We wanted to convey coming together regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender so all people could come together to work for a goal that would benefit Iraq and would spread out to the Middle East."

The projects were judged on mastery of skills and talents, guest experience, uniqueness and team collaboration. The judges were looking for the ability to recognize the cultural nuances of the selected location, expanding the boundaries of what currently exists, and an evaluation of its business implications and impact on the community.

On Friday — the last day of the competition — the results were announced and Waters and his team were placed as first out of the six finalist teams. They will be awarded a cash prize of $1,000, and an additional $1,000 grant will also be awarded to SCAD, since it was the sponsoring university.

According to Waters, the SCAD team wasn't even expecting to win.

"Personally, I never thought we could win, not because I didn't have faith in our project," Waters said. "But seeing everybody else's and how good their projects were, we wondered if ours held up."

Waters said when his team arrived at the competition in California last week, the idea that the event was actually a "competition" quickly left the minds of each of the teams. He said everyone they met who were competitors were "super caring, super talented and well-versed in their area of expertise," and the six finalist teams became a sort of family over the course of five days.

But at the awards ceremony, when the "Rose of Babylon" was called as the first place project, Waters and his team were blown away.

"I can't really tell you how I was feeling then, I still don't really know," Waters said. "We genuinely weren't expecting for them to call our team name, and when they did, we had nothing but uttermost joy on our faces."

Waters said it was such an honor having their project chosen by Disney executives and seeing that their hard work had paid off. He said that the competition was a life-changing experience and that he learned a lot through the process of working with his team, developing their project and presenting it in California.

And having a week at Walt Disney Imagineering opened his eyes to the endless possibilities in the job field that he's interested in. Everywhere he turned there was something new to learn, Waters said, and he learned about jobs and opportunities he'd never heard of before.

"I was inspired to come back to school to work harder and get that full-time position at Disney if that's where I end up," the Calhounite said. "I'm reinvigorated to working harder and I'm looking forward to the future. Hard work does pay off."

Waters hopes to work in the scene entertainment industry as a show set designer or production designer after he graduates from SCAD. He wants to create environments or experiences that affect people on multiple levels, and without a doubt believes participating in this competition has helped propel him along that journey.

Though still in school, Waters has already begun his career and has worked with Universal Creative, where he designed for the upcoming Universal Beijing theme park, and HBO, where he designed an event for the Season 2 premiere of HBO's Westworld.

Waters said he was encouraged to realize that just because he's from a small town doesn't mean he doesn't have the ability to work at a big company like Disney and do something that he loves.

"If you continue to search out what you want to do, you can actually achieve your dreams."

Young Artists