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Kiwanians enjoy update from Sumter County Schools

At their regular weekly meeting on Friday, April 9, the Kiwanis Club heard the latest information from Sumter County Schools (SCS). Superintendent, Torrance Choates, Associate Superintendent, Walter Knighton, Principal of Americus-Sumter High School, Kimothy Hadley and Board of Education (BOE) Chairman, Rick Barnes gave updates on various topics.

Dr. Torrance Choates gave results and explanation of the recent Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (E-SPLOST) vote. Choates explained in addition to the regular sales tax a Sumter Countian pays on any purchase, a penny is added to the charge. The penny goes towards the educational system. Those pennies add up to make a large impact for SCS. Over a month’s time, the ESPLOST can bring in over $300,000 per month for SCS. Choates reports, “if not for the ESPLOST, in order to build schools of that magnitude, just like the one we are building, you would have to raise the mill rate.” The mill rate determines the amount of property taxes residents pay. Thus, without the ESPLOST penny, property taxes would increase. Choates expressed his appreciation for the voters who supported the special tax.

Walter Knighton then presented the results of the COGNIA assessment of the school. COGNIA is an accreditation body which investigates several different areas to determine the health of the school system. COGNIA visited SCS in November of 2020. COGNIA is the new merger name of the former Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges or SACS. In recent history, SACS accreditation was in jeopardy and the school system was placed on probation in 2012. Losing SACS accreditation comes with a plethora of damaging issues for the school system, the student and the community. However, much has changed since that time. The COGNIA results indicate excellence in several areas and the bottom-line score for SCS is 326.94. The average score for all schools utilizing COGNIA, both in the US and internationally is 278-283. SCS score is well above the average of other schools using the same accreditation process. “We are in this together” is a message Knighton wants Sumter County to hear. He reports, “What we do at Sumter County Schools is going to benefit Sumter County at large.”

Kimothy Hadley presented other successes of the school, including the graduation rate as well as accomplishing a successful approach to virtual learning. Virtual learning came with a set of challenges Americus-Sumter High School had to stand up to meet, including technology, social-emotional learning, attendance, and even making home visits to learn of circumstances which were hindering our students from receiving the benefits of a new form of education. “Don’t let change run over you, go with the change so it can help grow you. That is what we did this year.” Hadley reported on the resources the school took advantage of to ensure the school year was successful. One of those resources was the students themselves. He reports “empowering” leaders in the classroom. He also reports there are circumstances in which he learned how important the school is for needs outside of education. Kimothy reports how he and his staff would make home visits to determine the issue with some students being present in class. His tale was a reminder that a hierarchy of needs is present for each student. Upon making one home visit he learned from a student he was unable to attend a class for fear of the violence in his neighborhood and how it could reach his home. When faced with threats, the threat must be mitigated before education can go forward. However, the high school was able to go forward throughout this year and for the 2020-21 SCS enjoyed the highest graduation rate for our region.

BOE Chairman, Rick Barnes presented the progress of the new high school, Sumter County High School. Barnes reports the maximum price of the high school is approximately 53 million dollars. The construction fee is around 47 million dollars and about 6 million dollars are the architect’s fee. Thus far, 44 million dollars have been spent. Barnes reiterates the importance of the ESPLOST funding, and it is expected the new school will be paid for by the funds generated through the penny tax. “So, it is very important that we start to appreciate ESPLOST passing.” There are 4 wings to the new school with Ignite College and Career Academy (CCA). The CCA is a separate entity and is cosmetically different than the high school. The auditorium of the high school Barnes reports as “being a fine facility for our community.” Those in attendance were able to see rooms such as lunchroom and gym and entryways. The building progress as well as the budget is on target. Barnes reports the community will be “wonderfully impressed with the magnitude of this building.” As far as the current high school, Barnes reminded the crowd the building belongs to the taxpayers of Sumter County. Barnes indicates the BOE is responsible for upkeep of the building and he personally is open to hearing the ideas the taxpayers might have for the continued use. In speaking football, the current field will be utilized. However, the practice field will be on the new high school property. Barnes reports the practice field is being built in such a way that it has possibility to be the game night field. He suspects future ESPLOST votes and passage could afford the school system greater updates to sports facilities in the future. The acreage for such is already included in the new SCS property.

Kiwanians meet every Friday afternoon at 1pm in the GSW faculty dining room.  The presentation as well as other information on the club can be found on their Facebook page, Americus Kiwanis Club. The Sumter County Board of Education meets twice monthly, and their meetings can be viewed on the SCS Facebook page.