Education news

Late last year, Cedartown Middle School student Katelyn Davis shocked the community just after Christmas when she committed suicide, and documented her death on a livestream that continues in circulation on the internet.

As news of her death spread around the community, one of those who felt the impact was Polk County Commissioner and Cedartown Middle School educator Jennifer Hulsey. She said late last month that she wished she could have done more for the 12-year-old.

She wished that everyone could have done more.

That got Hulsey to thinking that if there wasn't a way to help Katelyn anymore, maybe there was a way to help other teens who fall into at-risk categories during the middle school years.

Her new program, "Take Back Polk" is one that she's hoping the Polk County Board of Education will sign on to support in Cedartown and Rockmart, teaming selected local volunteers with youth one-on-one in a new mentoring program.

"It's been in my head for years and years," she said. "Then we had this little girl die late last year, and it shook me to the core. Everyone knows I taught the little girl (Davis,) it was devastating. The teachers I worked with kept asking themselves, 'what could I have done?' We did everything we could do."

Hulsey described the program to a group of local officials she's hoping will also get deeply involved in the new mentoring initiative that she hopes will allow local youth an opportunity to see outside of their own experience last month in the first meeting.

"This is not for me, but for Polk County," she said.

And it's something in dire need.

During her recent meeting gathering together potential mentors, Hulsey had Juvenile Court Judge Mark Murphy talk about Polk County's particular problems.

"Probably the biggest continuing problem right now is with parents who have gotten on drugs, primarily Meth," said Murphy. "It's the highest percentage I've seen in substance abuse among parents coming to this court in a long time. Currently 66 percent of kids go into foster care because parents are on drugs."

Though Murphy said it's a fairly small segment of the population ending up in his courtroom for children ending up in foster care, it's still a large enough number to have him concerned. As of mid-May, Department of Family and Children Services' Robin Forston reported that 148 Polk County youth were in foster care.

And only 30 homes were available for those youth to be assigned to live in, whether temporarily or permanently.

With youth being separated from family and friends due to Juvenile Court decisions, local DFCS director Susan Ollis said the potential mentoring program could do a lot of good.

"I think any of the children in the middle school would benefit from this," she said. "You might not see it today, but next year or down the line it will show. These children need positive role models, someone to give them affirmation statements, don't know really what impact that will have on them."

Hulsey's goal with the new program, developed with the help of Airport Manager and volunteer Sam Branch, is to connect local leaders from a variety of backgrounds with at-risk youth.

Whether those who are struggling with lack of family support or have behavior issues, or simply just need some encouragement based on guidance counselor's recommendations, they'll get paired with someone who is hoped to be just the right fit for the youth in question.

If the program gets the support and approval from the Board of Education after a Tuesday night presentation Hulsey planned to bring to the June 6 work session, there's several more steps to go before students will be interacting with mentors.

Over the summer, standard background checks will be undertaken for those who plan to work with local youth. The schools will also have to ask parents or guardians in August for youth identified by counselors to take part if they want to participate.

From there, starting in September the youth would get involved in a variety of monthly lessons and goals to achieve that mentors will discuss with those selected in the program.

Hulsey also designed the program to help improve their academic performance in the classroom through a somewhat carrot-and-stick approach.

If students achieve goals in going to school with perfect attendance,

improve their grades and behavior improves, they'll get to take part in extra school-related activities. Should the students in the mentor program not live up, they get to stay back at school while those who have get to take part in the program's planned activities.

"This mentor is going to be a constant," she said.

The hope for Hulsey is that if students are around successful mentors, and then are given regular encouragement by participants, they'll want to reach their goals and do better overall. She wants to save as many students as possible from a future, and save the county from what she calls a "real crisis."

So no matter their future, they'll at least get motivation to do better in the program.

"If we can help save them right now, that's my main goal," Hulsey said. "If we can get to these kids at a critical stage in their lives in middle school, maybe we can make a dent in the problems."