When it opened 60 years ago, Central Gwinnett High was the model of a community school. It sat in the heart of Lawrenceville, just blocks from the county seat and town square, and served as a center of involvement for the local population. It was still like that when Shane Orr’s mother and uncle went there in the 1960s, and it was largely unchanged when Orr graduated in 1995.
This year, Orr took over as principal of the school where his family has so many deep, local roots. His charge is to oversee the 2,160 students who are carrying on Central’s deeply rooted traditions.
“For instance, Central grads can sing the alma mater – yes, our kids today can do that,” said Orr. “We still have an annual homecoming parade in the city of Lawrenceville.”
At the same time, the school has adapted to the challenges of education in the current culture. One of leading ways it has changed has been through becoming a college and career academy school.
“We have four academies within our school that act like four smaller schools for STEM, fine arts and communications, medical and health care, and law, entrepreneurship and public service,” said Orr. “In each one, students get the opportunity to see our curriculum through the lens of those academies. So if you’re in the medical and health care academy, an algebra teacher will make connections to that field. It makes learning relevant.”
Central inaugurated the concept of academies four years ago, and much of their success has hinged on close connections to the community.
“We have people from the area who come and speak to students, help teachers plan lessons and provide opportunities for students to get on-the-job training,” said Orr. “We have an alum who works at Google, and now several kids from our STEM academy are working there. Our business students intern at our partner, Peach State Federal Credit Union, and last year, the bank built a branch in our school where our students work. Aurora Theatre also has an office on our campus and works with our acting and theater classes. That’s all unusual and unique to Central. We want to make sure we’re connected with local businesses, and having those relationships keeps us in tune with what they need from our students.”
The lessons learned through Central’s business academy took 2016 graduate Alexander Brown into a job at Peach State that he holds down while working on a business degree at Georgia Gwinnett College.
“The business academy has become a Central tradition, and being a part of it and working at Peach State gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said.
Brown got to share his high school and working experiences with the Central community that gathered last week to mark the school’s sixtieth anniversary.
“It was great to show the community who our graduates are, who our school is,” he said “I got to meet so many other alums, including (Lawrenceville) Mayor Judy Johnson. They all had wonderful stories around our great traditions.”
Orr says he’s not the only one working at Central who spent his teen years there. “I have about 10 staff members who are Central grads who wanted to give back to the school that gave them so much. But while our intentions are to keep our traditions alive, we’ve changed our learning environment for today’s students. We want them to have the skills to function in the workforce and college environment.”