Written by David Shivers
Albany -Lee County School Superintendent Dr. Larry Walters told the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty on December 16 that community support and parental involvement are “truly a hallmark of our school system. We are blessed, and we know we are blessed, and we don’t want to take it for granted either.”
A number of members of the Dougherty club live in Lee County, and Dr. Walters noted they may have children or grandchildren in the Lee system. Lee County has long been known for having good schools and a better economy than many of its neighbors in this part of the state.
“The parental support and economic level promote success for our students, and that’s what it’s all about, academic achievement,” he said.
The superintendent related a number of facts about the system he is charged with leading:
There are eight schools (two primary schools, two elementary schools, two middle schools, a ninth-grade campus, and the high school). There is also an alternative school and a Pre-K program. Total enrollment is currently about 6,400 students.
The school system is Lee County’s largest employer with 800 fulltime employees. Of those, said Dr. Walters, 450 have teaching certificates.
The Lee school system accepts students from the Marine Corps Logistics Base, although presently there are only four enrolled. They pay an annual tuition of just over $1,400.
A school strictly for ninth-graders, said Dr. Walters, “was a real homerun.” He added that he has asked graduates which year of school they enjoyed most. “Many, many times they would say the ninth grade. They don’t have to put on airs for anyone, they’re just ninth-graders; they’re 14 and turn 15. We have a lot more success with students staying in school, not dropping out.”
Back in August a new elementary school was opened and students in the former Lee County Elementary building were moved there. The former elementary building then became the county’s second middle school. Having two elementary and middle schools enabled changing of the east/west school zone line to make schools more geographically convenient and has helped alleviate traffic issues, according to Dr. Walters.
Dr. Walters noted the per-pupil expenditure for Lee County of $6,700 is $1,000 less than the Georgia’s expenditure of $7,700 per student. That requires less taxpayer support, while student achievement is “very high. Lee County is right up there at the top as far as test scores for our students.”
Dr. Walters explained that one measurement the state uses for school systems is “the percentage of the student population that qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. That’s based on family income. Forty-two percent of the families with children who attend Lee County schools qualify for reduced meals. Compared to some of our neighbors in southwest Georgia, that’s a very remarkable figure. In some counties in this part of the state, up to 80, 90, 95 percent of the students qualify for those meals. That’s one of the pluses for Lee County, the economic level is good and we have a lot of support from our parents.”
At one time, cellphones and texting were banned in the Lee schools, but that has changed. Now all the schools have wi-fi service. “Now we have a new concept called BYOT,” said Dr. Walters, “Bring Your Own Technology. Some teachers actually give assignments that students can access with their smartphones. So instead of disciplining students if they have their technology, now (we’re) embracing it. And frankly, the misuse of technology is minimal. The students have handled it very well, and it’s not only high school, it’s down as low as kindergarten. These children now, your children and grandchildrern, what they can do now as a kindergarten student is amazing. That’s the world they’ve grown up in, and I think it would not be responsible on the part of the school system to put our head in the sand and to not embrace who they are.”
To address what Dr. Walters called “a hot topic,” anti-bullying programs are active in every Lee County school.
Also, “One thing now that is kind of a buzz in Lee County schools” is an enrollment-size reclassification by the state that has moved Lee County High School from a 5A school to 6A.
“We have some concerns about that,” Dr. Walters admitted, about how that will impact athletic competition against much larger school. “We’ll see how things play out. As it stands, we will be the smallest 6A high school in the state of Georgia. In grades 9-12 we have 1,800 students. (Some of) These mega high schools will have 3,700 or 3,800 students. That makes it tough to compete.”
In the end, though, a good education is what’s important. Dr. Walters made a pledge to his audience.
“Folks, this is how it works. If we can get a child in Pre-K as a four-year-old, or kindergarten, and will stay with us for 12 years, through graduation, they’re going to be able to read, they’re be able to write, they’re going to be able to do math. They may not be able to do calculus, but they can do math. They can compute, and they will be prepared” for whatever their next stage of life brings.