Building up trust and partnerships in the community is one of the main goals of Superintendent Laurie Atkins during these first days of her new job.
To make that job easier, she organized an invite-only breakfast meeting for local stakeholders in the Polk School District to give out information about achievements made in the past year, and expectations for the future.
It’s a tall task. Polk School District daily has more than 7,800 students in the classroom in grades Pre-K through 12, which Atkins said includes an increase in the upper grades at the high school level in the past years.
“It means that we’re keeping those kids with us, and that’s important. And a lot of it is thanks to the support we have from our parents, our organizations and our churches in the community,” Atkins said. “We thank everyone very much for helping us.”
Atkins during a brief round of information about the district and where it stands pointed to an increase in the graduation rate in Polk County in the past years, rising from below 60 percent to 82 percent at both Cedartown and Rockmart High Schools during the last school year.
“This is fabulous,” she said. “We’re very proud of this information. And truly that is our target, whenever a child enters kindergarten or Pre-K, to see those children walk across the field at Cedartown or Rockmart High School.”
She also had one goal in mind: get people to give a clear idea of what support they’re willing to provide in making education better in Polk County and build off the growing success seen in an increase in graduation rates and student participation in college and career-based programs. But it takes more than just academics to get there.
“We want to make sure that we’re working with our community partners to get the most for our kids,” Atkins said. “We look at our job and our role as educating the whole child... there’s so many different factors that go into the success of a child in our school district, so it is our goal to maximize the educational experience. We want to make sure that we’re preparing our students for the next step in their journey.”
She, College and Career Academy CEO Katie Thomas and assistant superintendent Greg Teems all provided figures for how well the school system has done in the past year. For instance, they pointed to a 92 percent enrollment rate for high school students in programs directly related to the College and Career Academy at Cedartown or Rockmart High School.
Many of those students are also involved in dual enrollment, earning both college and high school credits toward a diploma and later a degree.
Last year, five students walked out of Polk School District having graduated with not just having completed high school, but also earning an Associate’s degree. She listed off a long and growing number of data points to show the success seen so far in the program in the past years, including the State and National Welding Champion coming from right here in Polk County for 2017.
“And we heard from you that one of the things we needed make sure we did was to add a work ethics component to our student’s daily routine here and make it an important part of their class grade,” said Thomas. “In listening to our local business and industries that said that’s our number one needwhen coming to work ... we added 20 percent of a student’s grade to being work ethics and employability skills.”
Additionally, Teems added that the district is working on programs to better connect with students, and in efforts to be more transparent with not just the community, but students too.
Specifically, he talked about how middle school students are one area where the school system needs help in mentoring programs during a time when they are making formative life decisions.
He talked about how the tragedy at Cedartown Middle School over the suicide of Katelyn Davis reason alone to get everyone involved
“We do need to develop that whole child, and we recognize that there are factors beyond the classroom that mold and shape our children,” he said. “We also recognize that we need that help in breaking those barriers that are negatively impacting our students.”
52 reports came in last year from students who exhibited behavior of potential for self harm, Teems said, which ranged from cutting to thoughts and admitting suicidal thoughts.
The Georgia HOPE program and PSD are partnering to provide students with treatment if needed, and parents and legal guardians as well, Teems said.
“We want to expand the services through our schools,” Teems said.
What Atkins specifically wanted from the community partners was at least this promise: find a way to help students.
A variety of programs are in place now for those who want to volunteer - especially business and community leaders - to get involved in for the coming year.
For instance, the new middle school Take Back Polk mentoring program that kicked off in September is one example of how people can get involved.
The Adopt a Class program started in the 2016-17 school year is also making a return and expanding out to Rockmart High School as well, and more is needed and wanted, such as tutors and community coaches and more.
“We can’t do it without you,” Atkins said. “If you can think of a way that you’d like to partner with us, please let us know so we can contact you and continue our wonderful partnerships.”
Ultimately what will make the most difference in the lives of children, and make Polk School District better for all is to ensure that parents of students get even more involved in the education process, a sentiment the trio hoped will spread through the community as changes continue.