The main entrance to McDonough Middle includes a security feature that requires the school to buzz visitors in. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Henry Schools population booms as county continues breakneck growth

When Henry County leaders welcome students back to class Thursday, they’ll do so by featuring two new schools, a college and career academy that has a building all its own for the first time and enrollment that is anticipated to hit 44,000.

What was a moderately sized school district of around 20,000 students in 2000 has more than doubled in size over the past 19 years and is continuing to grow, system officials say. That has kept the southside county continuously looking for more ways to teach students, options to expand its footprint — the district now has 50 schools — and pushing to connect to the community that ultimately has to support all of it.

“I actually see the school system as that stabilizing infrastructure for communities that go through massive growth,” said Henry Schools Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis as she toured the halls of the new 146,000-square-foot McDonough Middle School on Wednesday (McDonough High is the other new school).

“I think (schools are) a community unifier and a place where people convene and come together,” Davis said. “Newcomers find their community largely at their school.”

Henry, the metro area’s second-fastest growing community, will be joined by the city of Decatur and Cobb, Cherokee and Forsyth counties in welcoming students back to class on Thursday. Rockdale Schools opened this past Monday while classes in Gwinnett, Fayette, Clayton, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton and the city of Atlanta will begin over the next two weeks.

Henry will start the new year on a positive note. The district’s Georgia Milestones scores from the spring 2019 assessment showed improvement in 20 out of the 24 tested grades and courses when compared to the 2017-2018 school year.

In English Language Arts, for instance, 18 elementary schools gained 10 percentage points or more from 2018 to 2019 among students scoring at proficient and above levels. In math, 19 elementary schools had gains of 10 percentage points or more over last year.

“We’ve had a lot of years of declining performance,” Davis said, adding that the Milestone scores prove the district is on the right track. “This is the first year as a district we’ve absolutely turned that trend around.”

The district also has filled almost all of its teaching spots in the highly competitive market for educators.

“We are down to 10 vacancies,” Davis said. “We are still trying to push hard on (filling) those.”

To keep that momentum, the school system is focusing on beefing up resources for teachers, tweaking grading policies and report cards and introducing new, tightly structured models for improving reading, including doubling down on phonics and earlier intervention when children show gaps in their ability to read.

“I am uncompromising about our responsibility for kids to be able to read, and read at a high level,” Davis said.

Henry Schools also is testing security improvements at the schools, district spokesman J.D. Hardin said. At McDonough Middle and High schools, visitors must now be buzzed in by the front office to get into the buildings after classes have begun, a first for the district. Some faculty badges also will include buttons that can alert school leaders to lock buildings down in cases of emergency.

The addition of McDonough High School has allowed the district’s College and Career Academy to take over the space it used to share with high schoolers at Henry County High School. Now that that school has moved into the new McDonough High, the academy can expand its more than 40 career-pathway programs, which include supply chain management, culinary arts, welding and medical services.

“They can take their core content courses, but also career pathway courses that enable them to get kind of a really early look into what life may be like in a particular career field,” he said.

Larita Wiggins, principal at McDonough Middle, said she is excited about the new building and new features, including the security system, media center and outdoor classroom spaces. The school also will require students to wear uniforms — they call it “standard school attire”— the second school in the district to do so.

“That sets a different tone for our building,” she said. “We want to set a tone of exceptional work in our building. Our learners are going to look exceptional as well.”

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