Lee schools meet challenges head-on

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- When Lee County School System Superintendent Larry Walters ticks off the school-related items that have been built using special tax funds collected over the last 20 years, it's an impressive one.

"We built the middle school, the new Twin Oaks, we added on to the high school, built athletic fields and practice facilities, paved parking lots, renovated the Ninth Grade Campus," Walters, who has been at the helm of the Lee school system just short of eight years, said.

"Quite frankly, we would not be able to do the things we do in the Lee County School System without E-SPLOST funds. Without this special tax, we would have to look at funding from ad valorem and property taxes, which would not be popular."

Certainly all the building projects have been vital to the Lee system's success, but it's what's gone on in the classrooms that has been more impressive. Until last year, when Lee County High's graduation rate dipped, the local system had been one of only two in the state that had achieved the No Child Left Behind-mandated adequate yearly progress systemwide every year since the federal law was enacted.

And what may be an even more striking testament to Walters' and the Lee system's commitment to educational excellence is the reaction to its failure to attain AYP.

"That was very disappointing, eye-opening for us," Walters said. "But federal guidelines do not allow any room for students who might need a little more time to finish their graduation requirements. They count the number of students who enter the ninth grade, and then count the percentage of them that graduates four years later.

"What we've done is acknowledged the important role students' ninth-grade year plays in their education. We want to get them off to a good start. That's why having the separate Ninth Grade Campus is so important. It cuts out some of the distractions that hamper some 14-year-olds who are in that setting for the first time. Our only graduation coach is at the Ninth Grade Campus."

But the Lee system's efforts for student improvement don't stop with freshmen.

"We've started night school for students who fall behind -- and you have to remember that we have a lot of students moving into our system who may not have gotten the same preparation as the students who came up through our system," Walters said. "Our night classes -- actually, they're evening classes, from 4 to 6 -- are available for a fee, but if the fees are an issue for some families, we work with them."

On March 15, the citizens of Lee County will vote on the continuation of the E-SPLOST -- a 1 percent sales tax used strictly for education projects -- that has been so vital to the growth and success of the Lee school system.

Priority No. 1, if the measure is approved, is construction of a new elementary school that will help alleviate overcrowding in the county's lone middle school.

"We're approaching 1,600 students in our middle school, and that's getting tough to manage," Walters said. "If the SPLOST passes, we'll build a new elementary school for grades 3, 4 and 5 at the corner of Robert B. Lee Drive and Lover's Lane Road. We purchased 40 acres of land in that area last summer, so we'll have enough land to put some ball fields and maybe a walking trail on the property.

"What (building the new elementary school) will do is allow us to use the current Lee Elementary building (at 185 Firetower Road) as a second middle school. Two middle schools with around 800 students at each is certainly more manageable. It will also allow more opportunities for extracurricular activity participation. For example, our (middle school) girls basketball team just finished its season. There were 15 girls involved. With the new school, there will be an opportunity for two 15-player teams."

The fourth E-SPLOST was approved by more than 92 percent of Lee County voters.

Even with plans in place to continue the overwhelming success of the Lee system, Walters, who grew up in Ohio and was an educator in his home state and in Alabama before coming to Lee County on April 1, 2003, acknowledges that there are challenges.

State funding cuts forced the system to lop four days off student class time, and staff (including Walters) had to swallow hard and accept eight furlough days.

"When you consider that some of our personnel are husband and wife, you're talking about cutting almost one-twelfth of their family's yearly income," the superintendent said. "That's not a good thing. Their bills are still going to come each month."

In addition to staff financial issues, the statewide decrease in funding ("Right now, 62 percent of our money comes from the state," Walters says) also diminishes educational opportunities.

"There are things we want to do to prepare our students for today's world," Walters said. "But we have gaps in our technology because we have other funding challenges. Operation costs are tough in this economy. For instance, we transport more than 3,500 students every morning and afternoon, so we have to update our buses constantly. We're auctioning three next month that have been in use since 1990.

"Those are the kinds of ongoing challenges that this system faces."

Still, Walters says the challenges will not mean a compromise in the quality of education Lee students receive.

"What we try to do is when we have opportunities for promotion, we promote from within," he said. "That's the American way, and it gives our employees incentive to stay fully invested in our programs.

"Lee County is one of those places that, unfortunately, are becoming rare in America. It's a great place to raise a family. The parents are engaged, and the students here have values. The success of our school system is not about one person, not about Larry Walters, making all the decisions. There are people in this system with 20 to 30 years of experience, and we take advantage of that. We listen ... that's an important element of our system. We want people willing to listen."