Dawson County Schools Superintendent Damon Gibbs traveled to the Chattahoochee Technical College in Pickens County last week to discuss the needs of school systems in rural Georgia with state legislators.
On Aug. 20, Gibbs participated in the Local Superintendent Panel alongside Carlton Wilson of Pickens County and Shanna Downs of Gilmer County as part of the first Georgia House of Representatives Rural Development Council of 2019 where the superintendents were invited by the council’s Chairmen Rick Jasperse (District 11) and Sam Watson (District 172) to address the council with concerns and comments.
The House Rural Development Council was created by House Resolution 389 during the 2017 Legislative Session. The resolution acknowledged that despite an overall, steady economic recovery in Georgia as a whole, rural portions of the state have not shared proportionally in the recovery due to a declining population and distinct challenges faced in these regions. The intensive two-year Rural Development Council was established to learn about the unique issues in rural Georgia that impair the stabilization and potential growth of these communities. The focus of the Aug. 20-21 two-day council was improving education opportunities in rural Georgia.
Gibbs spoke to a room full of legislators and educators from across the state about the concerns he sees in the growing Dawson County community.
“Our enrollment is up approximately 3 ½% for the second consecutive year and growing highlights our challenges in an economically diverse Dawson County,” Gibbs said.
A lack of broadband access has plagued the community, Gibbs continued.
While the school system has implemented fiber through North Georgia Network, rolled out a 1:1 technology initiative and added Wi-Fi to the school system’s fleet of buses so that students have access to high speed internet while on their “more-than-one-hour bus routes to the corners of our community,” Gibbs said it is not enough because students still lack high speed internet in their homes.
“My greatest area of concern today is the safety of our students,” Gibbs continued. “We’re grateful for the money set aside this year for safety upgrades. We all needed it to provide a more secure environment.”
This year, Dawson County Schools received $210,000, or $30,000 per campus, from the state earmarked for safety upgrades. Each of Georgia’s 2,292 public schools received $30,000 for safety upgrades this year per Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget.
But Gibbs’ said his biggest concern is beyond the physical safety of Dawson County’s 3,600 students.
“As of today I’m more concerned about the mental health crisis in our community than anything else,” Gibbs said. “We need to take action.”
Gibbs said that in the past five years, Dawson County has had five student suicides while Lumpkin County has had four.
“We currently partner with a nonprofit that receives Apex grant funding. Those grants were increased, actually doubled, this past year by the governor’s budget, improved with your help; however, our service remains the same,” Gibbs said.
Kemp effectively doubled the reach of the Apex grant, a program supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, after hosting several roundtable discussions about the program earlier this year – the first being held at Dawson County High School.
The Apex program began as a pilot program in 2015 with the goal of building infrastructure and increasing access to mental health services for school-aged youth throughout the state by providing counselors inside local schools.
While the expansion of the Apex program has allowed for approximately 800 schools in the state to receive its benefits, Gibbs said it is still not enough.
“The counselors in our schools are guidance counselors. We need mental health counselors that are with our kids every day that don’t worry about what type of insurance they have,” Gibbs said. “We need state funding to add a mental health counselor to every high school cluster in Georgia.”
Gibbs concluded his comments with “if a student came to school with a broken arm, we would do whatever is necessary to have the break repaired and care for the child, but children are coming into our schools emotionally broken and we don’t have the tools necessary to provide that same level of care. We can, and we should, do better.”