By Patrick Yost
Morgan County Middle School English and Language Arts teacher Danielle Bruce is excited. Bruce, a bright-eyed 14-year veteran teacher, spent Monday unpacking posters and supplies in her new space at the new Morgan County Middle School.
The large window at the rear of her classroom is allowing sunlight to flood into the clean room with white walls, white ceilings and a large smart video panel waiting for use. Bruce plans on placing her desk near the window which overlooks the high school football field.
The 2002 Morgan County High School graduate has never wanted to be anywhere else. She spent a few years with the Social Circle School System, but when the opportunity to teach at Morgan County arrived, she grabbed it. “I wanted to come back home,” she says. “I don’t want to work anywhere else. This is home.”
It’s a new home for the 750 middle school students who were supposed to move into the new facility on May 4. A worldwide pandemic stopped those plans, but teachers like Bruce and Heather Jackson and administrators like Principal Hillary Meeler, were at at the school this week getting accustomed to the new space and the new energy a new school brings.
Jackson, a 15-year veteran English teacher, says the moment deserves some retrospection. “It’s bittersweet. We grew up here, we went to school on Pearl Street. This is a big change but it’s a great change. We are super excited.”
School years, says Meeler, have unique personalities. There is the glowing excitement of new beginnings when fifth graders are bussed to the middle school for an orientation visit. There is the dogged determination of course work and steady achievement. The end of the year, now, would be a time of celebration and recognition. There was the annual eighth grade dance to plan, which this year was going to be held in the new school’s cafeteria. There is awards night.
There was going to be a final walk through of the halls of the old Morgan County Middle School with all the students before their last day at the old school. “We’ll do it,” she says with resolve, “but it won’t be the same.”
All of that has come to a screeching halt.
But there is this new facility, a new beginning that administrators and educators are walking into like a family just given a new house. It is, says Meeler, an exciting time.
“Having a new facility is a shift in your culture. You feel it in your people, in your students and your staff. There is a pride in the new school.”
The new middle school is the last piece in an ambitious, $48 million plan to construct both a new high school and new middle school on a single campus on College Avenue. The new high school opened to rave reviews in October 2018. Plans were to open on May 4 to acclimate middle school students to the new school during the last three weeks of this year’s school year so administrators could observe efficiencies and, more importantly, test the traffic flow around the two schools.
“We’ve been looking forward to moving in for a year and half,” Meeler says.
Dr. James Woodard, superintendent of the Morgan County Charter School System, says while the schedule has been interrupted by the COVID-19 virus, the exhilaration of preparing a new facility has not been diminished. Woodard points out the technology enhancement of classrooms with huge smart monitors, teachers wearing audio microphones and inherent safety systems. “It is a clean, technology-rich environment,” he says.
Clean is an understatement. Sunlight shimmers on the new gym floor, with windows high above allowing natural light to filter onto the pristine wood floors. The cafeteria is equipped with large walk-in refrigerators and freezers. Some of the stainless steel cooking equipment is still tagged.
Woodard says during planning for the new school, administrators focused on six items – safety, traffic, expanding education options and programs, energy efficiency, issues related to health and fiscal responsibility.
The new school, which was paid in part using $16 million in state funds and through a passed Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST), that if approved again this year, will have the new school projects paid for at the end of 2025.
The superintendent walks into an empty classroom and bright, LED lights automatically buzz to life. There are cameras in every ceiling. The monitors alone are a jump-start to a new technological age for middle school teachers. The campus, he says, will be safer “because it’s self-contained.” Woodard and the Board of Education convinced the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) to allow the system to cut an entrance off the Madison bypass into the rear of the new high school. “It provides some separation of traffic. We’ve got options,” he says.
Both schools are utilizing “high efficiency” heating and air units that should make massive reductions in energy costs.
Each classroom is fitted with new desks, rolling smart boards and, the teachers say, the excitement that comes from the new.
Jackson understands. Five months ago she gave birth to her first child, a healthy delightful boy named Rhett. “That has been a huge change in my life,” she says, smiling as she looks through her classroom’s window that opens up to a garden space. “It’s a new challenge of living.”
Bruce remembers walking the halls of Morgan County Middle School with her husband Bob when both were students. She has a fondness for the old school and its endearing memories.
But more so, she says, she has a fondness for her students and has regrets for the abrupt end of this year’s school year because of the threat of spreading the coronavirus.
“I went there (the old middle school) a couple of weeks ago and sat in my classroom and cried,” she says. “To me it’s bittersweet. We left that day that day no knowing we were not going to see our students again.”
“We were supposed to move in next week.”
“It’s hard to know you were teaching them the last day and didn’t know it was the last day.”
Meeler agrees. “We were very disappointed. They just wanted to walk through one more time.”
So no eighth grade dance. No awards night. No special “Taco Tuesday” during teacher appreciation week at the new school in the new cafeteria. Meeler says the school’s personality today is different. Exciting, she says, for sure. The new space is waiting for the new energy of students and teachers working together for the higher cause of education.
“There is always energy,” she says.
As Jackson unpacks one of the seven boxes administration allowed each teacher to fill (the corrugated cardboard boxes are recycled from when the high school teachers went through the same process) she exudes a comfortable energy. She shed her tears and is ready for the future in a place that she never wanted to leave. She’s got help, she says.
“Being close to everybody now is going to be nice. We are a close-knit school system and we are a family.”