New eras for 2 Houston schools

While one Houston County school was getting ready for its debut, another was preparing for a new direction.

In the week before the very first day of school at Veterans High School, the building was in a state seldom used to describe a high school: quiet.

There were no obstacles in the school’s wide hallways, and no need to push through crowds of students rushing to the library or the counselor’s office or any of the schools 82 classrooms just yet.

Come Monday morning though, about 900 freshmen, sophomores and juniors will set foot on campus for their inaugural day of classes at Veterans.

Even before then, a few have managed to make their way around the school for volleyball practice in the gym, or to football and band practice out on the school’s fields.

“It’s starting to feel like a school now,” said Lionel Brown, Veterans’ principal. “Football’s starting, band’s starting, volleyball, cheerleading. Shucks, you name it, we got it. Everyone’s claiming stakes in this facility.”

Of course, school leaders are still going through a few growing pains in the midst of their preparations. Brown said he’s been getting accustomed to using equipment such as the school’s intercom system and state-of-the-art lighting. There was also figuring out how to control the computer-operated sprinkler system that went off during a recent band practice.

Since being named Veterans’ first principal in October, Brown has had to hire administrators (such as Amy Barbour, assistant principal for instruction), leaders of extracurricular programs (athletics director David Bruce), and almost 60 teachers and other staff members throughout the year, as well as taking care of other parts of the daily operations that go largely unnoticed, he said.

Though being the Veterans High principal is a major undertaking, serving as assistant principal at Perry High School for five years under the leadership of Principal Darryl Albritton has prepared Brown well for the job, he said.

Through it all, Brown lives by the motto he’s passed along to Veterans’ teachers: “There are no obstacles, just opportunities.”

During the summer, other tasks at the school have included registering new students and talking to parents about Advanced Placement course availability and other concerns.

All in all, Brown said he is looking forward to working with the students, who are coming from Perry, Houston County and Warner Robins high schools.

While green fields surround Veterans at present, Brown predicts Houston County will continue to grow toward the school in the future, he said.

Brown has no plans to wait until then to foster Veterans pride in the area though, through gestures such as honoring war veterans during the school’s first football game Aug. 28.

“In three or four years, this place will look like Russell Parkway and Moody. ... We’re building community, and what better way to do that than building one here?” he said.

Parents and students attended an open house Thursday night at Veterans and received maps to learn their way around the 300,000-square-foot facility.

That afternoon, Spanish teachers Sylvia Wilhite and Felix Martinez looked over the syllabi for their classes and organized their classrooms.

While Martinez, who came from Houston County High, plans to discuss the syllabus, class procedure and the importance of studying Spanish with his students Monday, he has a bigger mission to help “build a super excellent school” during the year.

“I’m feeling great — I’m ready to go!” Martinez said.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Wilhite, who came from Warner Robins High.

In a nearby classroom, Karen Hamilton, Veterans’ English department chairwoman, wiped desks and seats before students arrived. In all, Hamilton, who transferred from Houston County High, had unpacked 5,000 novels, among them “The Scarlet Letter,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “1984” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“I’m excited about being in a new place, with a new administration and meeting the kids on Monday,” she said.

School leaders are also making sure that traffic at and near the school is as smooth as possible, even with construction on Old Perry Road near its intersection with Ga. 96 in Bonaire. Brown also said they will monitor traffic during the first days to figure out how to make the flow of cars move as efficiently as possible.

All of the preparations will come to life once students arrive on campus, Brown said.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the potential I know is here, to see the fruits of the labor to spread.”

Houston County Career Academy set to open

Meanwhile, another existing school in Houston County is being transformed and re-emerging under a new name to students in the fall, along with changes to its leadership and facilities.

Formerly the Houston County Career and Technology Center, the Houston County Career Academy is the system’s first charter school.

While still part of the Houston County school system, the school is also guided by a board of directors: Barbara Wall, Houston County’s director of career, technical and agricultural education, Middle Georgia Technical College’s Paul Hibbitts, representatives from the Warner Robins and Perry chambers of commerce, two parent members and an at-large member.

The collaboration between area schools and the business community will better prepare students with the skills needed to fill local jobs, Wall said.

“I don’t think anybody knows what anybody needs to know on their own,” she said.

Since the school’s spring semester, the facilities for the career academy have gone through their own changes.

The building has been remodeled with new floors, ceilings, air conditioning and other interior renovations. Revamped welding and engineering classrooms should be completed by mid-October, Wall said.

The changes are taking place with the help of a $3 million Career Academy Grant through the Technical College System of Georgia.

While the Houston County school system and Middle Georgia Technical College have already been instructing the students, business leaders are also providing input into the workplace skills and habits they’re looking for in their future employees.

Courses at the career academy will include a work ethic component, emphasizing elements such as timeliness, attendance and communication skills.

Students will also receive more context between classroom knowledge and their workplace application, participate in project-based learning and put together a job fair featuring careers of interest, Wall and Principal Mike Parker said.

“When they do leave, it’s not just the knowledge base, it’s also those people skills and the work ethic,” Parker said.

The career academy will also be offering two new programs this year: engineering electronic manufacturing and teaching as a profession

Organizations such as Robins Air Force Base and Lockheed Martin have expressed an interest in working with those engineering students to help prepare them for skilled jobs needed in the area, Wall said.

“Why not tap into the resources available and put our students in a ready position?” she said.

Those enrolled in the teaching program will take part in student teaching and be able to earn dual credit at the career academy and a local college, such as Macon State College or Georgia College & State University, just as some are already earning dual credit through Middle Georgia Technical College.

The program, as well as a greater emphasis overall on gaining hands-on work experience, allows students to explore careers of interest before they invest years of post-secondary study into the endeavor and provides experience to students who already know what they want to do.

In the new school year, Wall said she is looking forward to attracting more students to the school with the new programs and resources in place, as well as building relationships throughout the community.

“The partnership is key,” she said. “It’s not one, it’s a group.”