By Joy Bratcher
The Board of Education tonight will vote on the $130 million budget proposed by Superintendent Phillip Lanoue.
Lanoue says the budget includes expenses needed to equip the renovated Clarke County High School and the rebuilding of Whitehead Elementary and Barnett Shoals Elementary schools.
A special purpose local option sales tax, SPLOST, financed the construction. In addition to the operating budget, the board will vote on matters related to the SPLOST tax
Construction began in mid 2014 on Clarke Central High School, Whitehead Road Elementary School, and Barnett Shoals Elementary School. At Clarke Central High School, a $30-million renovation and partial reconstruction is taking place according to the Clarke County School District Update presented in August of 2014.
Tonight, Lanoue will update the board on the construction.
Much of what has happened so far is demolition, but some of the restoration process is already finished. At the start of this school year, students seen restoration to their classrooms in the west wing second and third floors of the high school.
The wing’s classrooms have been expanded from 660 square feet to 930 square feet, Shearer’s article stated. This is to accommodate larger class sizes Clarke and other schools have been forced to form due to cutbacks in education funding.
Students at Whitehead Elementary will be anticipating a new building this fall as construction is scheduled to conclude in August. The new school will also be welcomed along with a new Barnett Shoals Elementary that will be finished at the end of 2015 and opened in January of 2016.
According to the budget presentation, the goals of the 2015-2016 budget also includes:
Goal I – Select, support and retain a highly dedicated, talented and diverse professional workforce.
Goal II – Create dynamic learning experiences for all students to close the achievement gap and to prepare them for college and careers.
Goal III – Strengthen neighborhood schools through strong collaborations with parent, district and community members to support student academic growth, socio-emotional development and physical well-being.
Goal IV – Strategically leverage resources to improve district programs and implement new initiatives.
Tonight’s meeting will begin at 6 pm at 240 Mitchell Bridge Road.
Athens residents, among the poorest in Georgia, are healthier than anyone would expect.
The poverty is well known. Clarke County has the seventh highest poverty rate in the state out of 159 counties. Nationally, Athens contains the fifth highest poverty rate among counties with populations higher than 100,000 people, according to recent census data.
And, experts say, that with this level of poverty comes poor health. This is the outcome for most counties in Georgia. Nearly 80 percent of Georgia’s counties with high poverty rates contain health statistics that match up just as poor.
But, a new study shows just the contrary for Athens. Clarke County ranks 14th for the best health rates in the state. They sit just above Henry County who oppose Clarke with the eighth lowest poverty rates.
An assembly of experts offered a range of explanations as to why these statistics contest one another. They include: a UGA Public Health professor, the state’s most well-known demographer, a volunteer physician, and an office manager at a health clinic for the underprivileged.
Three primary explanations from experts:
- Athens is a young town with a small percentage of the population 65 years or older, which lowers the mortality and morbidity rate.
- Athens has a large number of highly educated people who make smart health decisions.
- Athens is a social and economic hub with two regional health centers that attract commuters. There are also free health clinics that help the uninsured.
Athens is a young town.
Multiple news sources, from CNN to Kiplinger, have ranked Athens, Ga. as one of the top places in the country to retire, yet only 8 percent of the population is 65 years and above. That is lower than the rest of Georgia where an average of 11 percent are in their retirement years. In Clarke County, 74 percent of the residents are between the ages of 19 and 64 years old.
“If you have a population that is on the younger end of things,” said Dr. Monica Gaughan, UGA assistant professor in the College of Public Health, “than you are going to have lower mortality rates because older people are the ones who tend to be sicker.”
The University of Georgia plays a slight role in this statistic; however, only a small percentage of students declare Clarke County as their permanent residence so they do not effect the census results.
Almost two-thirds of UGA students come from about ten counties in the metro-Atlanta area, said Dr. Doug Bachtel, UGA professor of demographics. A significant number of these students drive back and forth from school each day or live in university dormitories.
The facts are simple. Younger people tend to be healthier people. Athens has a significant number of young to middle aged citizens who push the mortality and morbidity rate down; therefore, the overall health rate of the county is elevated.
Athens entices the highly educated.
“Better educated populations are going to live longer and they are going to be healthier while they are living,” Gaughan said. “One of the weird things about Athens-Clarke County is that we have extremely low income levels and extremely high education levels.”
The high school graduation rates of Clarke County are at 66 percent, which is only one point lower than the rest of Georgia; however, there is an overwhelming number of of the population with a bachelors degree or higher. The University of Georgia, located in the center of Athens, obviously plays a part in this statistic. A large portion of the population consists of highly educated professors and professionals, all who contain premiere health insurance and can afford to live healthy lifestyles.
Athens has a bimodal distribution of education and poverty levels, meaning there are large populations of people resting on two extremes of the spectrum. Forty percent of the Clarke citizens have a bachelors degree or above, which is twice the percentage of rest of the state.
“If you aren’t poor in Athens you are actually very well-off,” Gaughan said. “These are the people who are going to have access to good health care. They have money to buy healthy food. Yes, poor people are going to be unhealthy people and they are going to be more likely to die, but if half of the population is extremely wealthy, which is what happens in Clarke County, than they can pull that statistic up.”
Those classified within the 34 percent who live under the poverty line are not all uneducated. Gaughan stressed the necessity to remember the people who contain a college degree, but are voluntarily poor.
“Think about all of the musicians, and the artists and the hanger-oners that are part of Athens,” Gaughan described. “You have the education which will reduce your mortality and reduce your morbidity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that education is translating into higher income.”
Athens is a medical hub.
Athens is a lively town with shops and shows that people from all parts of the state travel to be a part of. They also commute in for medical care because of the two regional hospitals: Athens Regional Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.
“It’s all about the location,” Bachtel said. “There is a large number of state and federal agencies that are headquartered here. You’ve got a large number of people with Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance. Plus Clarke County and Athens tends to be a social, retail, service and educational hub in northeast Georgia. That’s why a lot of things cook here.”
About 20 percent of Athens’ residents contain Medicaid. Another 23 percent contain jobs but are still uninsured because they are ineligible for Medicaid and make too little to afford insurance. Most of the private physicians in town refuse to see either type of person, choosing to only care for those on the upper half of the bimodal distribution.
Those struggling in the lower half are not left completely uncared for. A multitude of free clinics are offered through Athens Health Network, an organization committed to filling in the holes of medical care within the health system of Athens. The program started from an umbrella organization through UGA called OneAthens, and then broke off in 2010 to be more focused on underprivileged healthcare.
“Its confusing because most populations have a much more normal distribution than our population,” Gaughan said. “Athens-Clarke County is comprised of extremely affluent, white retirees and professors and professionals, and extremely poor African American people who clean our toilets, and that is the ugly little secret of Athens. These clinics constitute the health safety net in town so poor people, who don’t have insurance, can use these practices to get access to the system.”
The two most popular clinics are Mercy Health Center and Athens Nurses Clinic. Both care for those who are completely uninsured, with no way of paying for health services.
One their main goals, said Dr. Paul Buczynsky of Mercy in a World Magazine article, is to get their patients involved in their own health by educating them on their illnesses. When a patient is treated for diabetes, one of the most perpetual chronic diseases seen at the clinics, he or she is required to take a six-week course that teaches the patient about the illness in order to get a prescription refill. The volunteer physicians highly enforce lifestyle changes over quick treatment so that more patients can be seen over time.
Not a perfect system.
Despite the glowing census numbers, not all experts agree on the accomplishments of Athens’ healthcare system.
Dr. Bachtel feels confident in the success of the services provided by the faith community and free clinics; however, Dr. Gaughan and those at Athens Health Network know the harsh reality.
“We do not have enough resources for the poor,” Gaughan stated. “I think it is a convenient little fiction that we tell each other when we say, ‘There’s so much charity care. Athens is just too busy to hate.’ That’s crap.”
Demand for free healthcare in Athens is rising, according to an AthensPatch article. The clinics are first-come, first-serve, and only have the resources to see a limited number of patients per day, said Mary Baxter, office manager of Mercy.
When the clinics are closed, 75 percent of the patients go to the Athens Regional ER, even though most of their health issues are not emergencies. This increases their wait time and many leave without being treated.
“The poor have pretty hard lives and don’t have a lot of access to care,” Gaughan said. “They go to the emergency rooms which is not necessarily the highest quality of care. If you have diabetes and you are having a diabetic episode than you don’t need to be in the emergency room, you need to be with a physician that has been managing your care. Very few physicians take people who don’t have health insurance, or even take people with medicaid.”
Athens-Clarke County is one of the few places in Georgia who has defied the standard of poor people with poor health rates. However, as seen nationally and locally, there is always room for improvement in the public healthcare system.
“I remember the first time I got a text message and I was like OK what is this and how do I respond” Debra Little said.
That day Briana, Little’s mentee, taught her how to send text messages on a BlackBerry.
“One day we were sitting in the conference room, I don’t remember how it came about,” Little recalled. “Oh! We were talking about how young people text without looking at their phones.”
Briana revealed the secret to texting without looking that Little would never forget.
“I was like I have to look at my keys and she was showing me that there was a little key in the very middle that had a little incision go up. She told me ‘you can feel that middle key and it kind of lets you know where to go from there,” Little said. “I got pretty fast with texting on the BlackBerry.”
Graduation rates in Athens-Clarke County are among the lowest in the state of Georgia but mentoring has the potential to turn these statistics around. The Clarke County mentoring program emerged as the best alternative to improving graduation rates in Athens but faces obstacles that keeps mentoring from reaching its full potential.
The Clarke County mentoring program started unlike other programs based outside of school settings. This program operates within local public schools to combat the low graduation rates in Athens. The program started in 1991 as a joint effort of the Chamber of Commerce and Athens-Clarke County School District.
“I think it all gets back to the fact that our county has such a low graduation rate,” Paula Shilton, Director of the Clarke County Mentor Program, said. “The mentor program was one of many initiatives that have been done in our community to try to raise graduation rates.”
AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQQPibuj6Z0
Mentoring proved its effectiveness all over the country. Atlantic City, New Jersey school officials paired lower performing students with mentors at a young age that finished high school in the top 10 percent of their class. The students did not need tutoring just someone to listen to them and help guide them along the way.
Graduation rates in America hit an all time high in 2010 at 78.2 percent. Rates this high have not been seen since 1975 at 74.9 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal via the National Center of Educational Statistics. Georgia’s 67 percent graduation rate for the 2010-2011 school year ranked low at the 48th highest state according to an Online Athens report.
Since 2006, the percentage of students who passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test rose from 64.4 percent to 70.1 percent.
Two indicators studies suggest lead to lower graduation rates are high levels of absenteeism and behavioral problems. Schools that participate in mentoring programs reported that students anticipate a visit from their mentor and miss less school. Behavioral problems differ once they have someone to listen to them.
In Athens, the number of students who pass the GHSGT every year serve as a direct reflection of the need for mentors. Stark differences exist in the percentage of students passing this test in Clarke County and Oconee County despite the close proximity. In 2011, 92.1 percent of Oconee County seniors passed the test in comparison to the 57.9 percent of students in Clarke County.
“I think this difference comes from not necessarily the number of readily available mentors but the types of mentors available,” said Shelbie Foster, a recently trained mentor. “In Oconee, you have a lot of retirees who are more than willing to mentor but in Clarke County majority of the mentors I see are students at UGA.”
Foster touches on one aspect of why the mentoring hasn’t reached its potential in Clarke County. A large number of students mentor in this area.
“Eighty percent of our mentors are UGA students and we couldn’t run with the program without them we really appreciate them and love them and your enthusiasm but if you would just not graduate and move on, that’s the problem,” Shilton said.
Debra Little is amongst the 20 percent of Athenian mentors that saw the need for long-term mentors. In 2006, Little began working at Athens Technical College. That same year the college inspired middle school aged students to attend college with a mentoring and scholarships incentives through the BELIEVE program.
“I went to the meeting just to learn more about it and I was told just fill out the application and you can decide later, next thing I knew I was assigned as a mentor,” Little said.
Little keeps in contact with her mentee today as a friend and plans to continue the friendship.
“She’s now a freshman at Savannah State College and yesterday I mailed her a Valentine’s card so we still keep in touch, still text each other and the relationship has been really great,” Little said.
Little has devoted her time to long-term mentoring for an array of reasons but her main reason originated in her own home.
“The number one reason I became a mentor is because I had three sons and at one point in my life I was a single parent and trying to find a mentor for my sons was absolutely impossible,” Little said. “It was so difficult to find someone who would mentor young men and so I wanted to be for somebody else’s child what I could not find for my own,” Little said.
Consistent contact with a mentor for one year, at least an hour a week can instill characteristics of better behavior, inspiration and higher school attendance in students.
Regulated class meeting schedules increase school ratings but constricts the time mentors have with their students.
“It was very important for students to attend classes and have an active voice in the classroom but we understand that mentoring has a positive effect on the children’s success as well,” said Dr. Lucy Bush, a former ESOL counselor at Coile Middle School.
The Chamber of Commerce houses the program and provides office space for the two directors. Terry Baez, Assistant Director of the Clarke County mentoring program agreed that money and staffing serve as the real issues of why the program can’t fulfill its full potential.
“We just need more staffing, right now we do a background checks but what we also should do is we should do interviews of perspective members, we should do reference checks, but who would do them,” said Shilton. “I’m the fundraiser, I work with the board of directors, I write all the grants to get money, I do the newsletter, I do trouble shooting with mentors and I keep up relations with the school counselors. We just need another staff person and I need to work more than 30 hours a week.”
Mentoring can raise graduation rates in Athens if citizens take a closer look into volunteering for long-term periods.
With more individuals like Debra Little, high school graduation rates can continue to rise to the same levels found in Oconee County. The Clarke-County mentoring program is housed in the Chamber of Commerce on West Hancock Avenue and applications to become a mentor can be found at http://clarkecountymentorprogram.org/.
Students cradling notebooks file into their GED class, greeting one another in Spanish and filling in the side-arm desks from the back.
“I need it for deferred action,” said one student, a 26-year-old Mexican citizen but U.S. resident for the past twelve years. “I would feel free. With it, you don’t have to be scared anymore.”
Half a million people will get their GED in the United States this year, but education is not necessarily the sole focus of these certificates. For students like the 26-year-old woman, the road to a GED can also serve as a pathway around deportation– at least for now.
On June 15th 2012, President Obama signed an executive order allowing undocumented “childhood arrivals” to apply for “deferred action,” granting immunity from deportation for a two-year period as well as employment authorization. The Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of the Latino community in Athens, Ga., has run their GED prep program for over a year, but deferred action revitalized it. Executive director Jeff Zimmerman said registration rose after the announcement, and the center expanded its program in August.
“The deferred action is really big. Being able to legally participate in our economy is a really big deal,” Zimmerman said. “Our GED program, given that possibility, would have a really impact because it opens so many doors for people– brand new jobs they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, being able to be here without fear of being deported for two years.”
To be eligible for deferred action consideration by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, residents must have arrived in the United States prior to their sixteenth birthday, have continuously resided in the United States for the last five years, have a clean criminal record and either be an honorably discharged veteran, currently in school, have graduated from a high school or awarded a GED. This last provision is where ALCES steps in.
“Our [GED prep] course is pretty intensive, they try to get them through as quickly as possible while still capturing all the necessary content,” Zimmerman said. “We have some pretty focused students.”
The GED is a high school equivalency certificate, open to anyone at least sixteen years of age and not enrolled in a regular high school. The GED is contingent on the cumulative scores of five individual tests. Incentive exists to pass these tests the first time due to the burdens of cost (in the state of Georgia, fees total to $95) and time (low scores can result in a three or six month wait period before individuals can retake the GED tests). Reports from national and local news sources show rising demand for preparation courses from undocumented would-be test-takers, but students struggle to afford private options, barred from free, state-provided classes due to their legal status.
Not every student participating in the GED courses at ALCES does so with aims of deferred action.
“Some want to do it for education purposes or job opportunities,” Zimmerman said.
But he added that at least half, maybe more, are taking these classes in hopes of fulfilling the educational requirement of the policy.
But those who do, according to Jennifer Blalock, an ALCES volunteer who works the front desk, come from all corners of Georgia and even as far as South Carolina to sit in the classrooms at ALCES. She attributes this not only to the classes themselves, but to the role ALCES plays in the Latino community as well.
“We’re established from within the Latino community,” she said, pointing out the multitude of community services ALCES offers.
According to former ALCES executive director Jamie Umaña, 380 students are enrolled in GED classes at the center, a number only limited by classroom space. Blalock says demand is so high that ALCES keeps a waiting list. For the undocumented, the possibility of deferred action makes the GED process all worthwhile.
“I cannot imagine living as an undocumented immigrant. The fear that comes with that of using basic resources that you and I would take for granted every day is crazy,” Zimmerman said. “Being scared of going to the doctor…every traffic stop becomes a terrifying experience– if you’re undocumented you’re un-licenseable.”
Students at the classes agreed. The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant said her life would “change in many ways” if she received deferred action. For her, the most important thing to come with deferred action would be a license, which would enable mobility without fear and the opportunity for a better job.
Another undocumented woman, also from Mexico, agreed. “It’s hard to get a job when you can’t drive or apply with your real name,” she said. The 19-year-old has lived in the U.S. since she was four. Beyond the end, she enjoys the means, saying the classes are good and “getting to learn more about the subjects” is interesting.
Although none of the students knew people awarded deferred action, all still have hope. Hope for a future, according to students, they didn’t have prior to the executive order.
“I dropped out of high school because what’s the point when you can’t go to college or get a job,” said the 19-year-old, now attending GED prep courses but still far from prepared to take the actual test. In the meantime, Zimmerman said the courses build a resource without legal bounds: confidence.
“When people succeed, they get empowered and that can’t really be understated.”
ALCES offers GED classes specializing in language arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and math, either in two-hour increments Monday through Thursday or in a six hour Saturday class. Course duration ranges from three to six months, at $50 a month. The center registers new students every week. ALCES is also always in great need of volunteers to help operate all its many community programs.