New faces will grace the Peach County Board of Education this election year as the two longest-serving incumbents opted not to run again.
Post 1 board member Wright Peavy of Byron and Post 3 board Chairman Norma Givens, both elected in 2000, are stepping down.
Peavy's successor will be Byron resident Ben McDaniel, who faces no opposition for the seat.
Givens' spot on the board is pretty much up for grabs, with three Fort Valley residents vying for the spot: retired educator Virginia Dixon, businessman Alfred "Big Al" Ellis and special education teacher Susan Henson.
Dixon and Henson have not run for elective office before. Ellis sought the at-large seat on the board in 2002, losing to Bill Gresham.
Dixon retired in 2006 after 41 years in public education, working her way up from instructor to principal at Fort Valley Middle School.
"I am running because I have a commitment to the children and a concern about our school system, especially with it being on probation," Dixon said.
She said her experience will come into play, citing her work on various education committees.
"I bring to the board something it hasn't had in the past: a person who has worked their way up through the public education system," she said. "I have worked as teacher and administrator, and worked on the state committee that developed the standards under which schools are measured for Adequate Yearly Progress."
Dixon said she felt the most pressing situation facing the school system now is getting off probation and regaining accreditation with distinction.
"This is most critical because it affects the students who graduate," she said. "Most colleges or universities will not accept students from an unaccredited school system."
The board has its work cut out to regain accreditation, she said, and efforts should not stop there.
"I know what we can do to be an outstanding board. We must be able to look at ourselves critically and evaluate ourselves honestly," she said. "Do a self-evaluation as a board and take it one step further with a community evaluation. It's not enough for us to see what kind of job we think we're doing, it's more helpful to have community involvement. Community involvement is so valuable."
Ellis cites his experience in business and community involvement in his bid for a board seat.
"Like many others I know, I've been dismayed by the actions and inactions of the board in the past 18 months," he said. I have an affection for the quality of education in the system; I've had two children graduate from here. One was a STAR student and is now in medical school; the other is in graduate school."
He said his business experience showed him the quality of a school system has a far-ranging effect on a community.
When he was director of the Peach County Chamber of Commerce education committee about a decade ago, the chamber confronted the board about being more responsive to community input. He said today's board should take the message to heart. The open rancor that characterized many of last year's board meetings has settled down, but more work lies ahead.
"I know that good schools will bring in good industries that will bring benefits to the entire community," Ellis said. "What we expect from the board of education is to settle down and address the needs of the children - that's the number one thing - and then all else falls in line. This is not the time to be complacent; all of us are responsible for the education of our children.
"Some child certainly got left behind in the past 18 months" with the way the board was behaving.
A quality school system will add to the quality of life in Peach County, he said.
"Fort Valley - and Peach County - is attractive. We have industry, a small university and low crime," he said. "We have to ensure our school system is one of the best and get the best teachers for our children. There's only one important issue: ensuring our children - all of them - get a quality education in Peach County. Give them the best we can because it enhances everybody's quality of life."
Henson, Peach County's Teacher of the Year the past school year, will be teaching special education at Howard Middle in Bibb County the coming school year.
According to state law, Henson, who was at Peach County High School this past year, would not be eligible to run for the board if employed by the school system.
"I'm running for the board seat to help make Peach County the best school district it can be," Henson said. "I can make a difference."
The 21-year classroom veteran said she would draw on that experience as a board member and make decisions based on the best information available for students' best interest.
Her focus will be on student achievement and communication with the public, she said.
"The immediate concern facing the school system is student achievement," Henson said. "I will promote positive images of our students and will work to attract high quality teachers. One of the best indicators affecting student achievement is the quality of the instruction."
She added she plans to meet regularly with constituents in Post 3 to gather their concerns.
Her time in the classroom has given her a foundation of knowing what students and teachers face every day as they try to meet learning goals.
"I know the stresses No Child Left Behind has put upon our schools," she said. "As an educator you have to think differently; all students learn differently and you have to try everything until you find what works for that student. You have to keep looking for different ways to reach them.
"They call it thinking outside the box, but that's everyday thinking for us."
To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.