July 8, 2013

Dalton’s ‘comeback’?

State leaders to tour community ‘doing it right’

By Christopher Smith

— The rest of the state could learn a thing or two from Whitfield County as it rallies from economic “trauma,” said Bill Maddox.

Maddox, the communications director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE), said Whitfield County’s survival through the national recession is a testimony to its people, especially since the county was hit extra hard after the housing market crisis stalled much of the local carpet industry in 2008.

That’s why officials with GPEE, a state nonprofit partnership covering business, education and government, are bringing a bus filled with state leaders to Whitfield and Murray counties Oct. 29-30 to tour area schools and community organizations.

Exactly who is coming won’t be determined until closer to the tour, but GPEE tagalongs in the past included state legislators, the state school superintendent and members from the state Board of Education, Maddox said.

“Several teachers have heard about it by word of mouth and come to learn what other people are doing,” he said.

The tour is also open to the public, but anyone outside of education will want to coordinate with their local school system if they want to join the tour, Maddox added.

“We’re more than happy to have people join us though,” he said “The local community there came together and through that effort Dalton is making a comeback. We’ve seen those improvements.”

That’s why the area was picked from among everyone else in the state, said GPEE Policy and Research Director Dana Rickman.

“The Greater Dalton area said, ‘Look we’ve been hit hard and we need to do something,’” she said. “They worked together for an educational and economic development plan. There was a community consensus. And that really impressed us.”

Dalton united around education

Because the health of the economy is only as good as the education level of its workforce, local investment in education is big, Rickman said.

“The community in Dalton recognized that the school systems alone can’t turn things around,” she added. “It’s a really cool thing that they’re doing.”

What the community is doing is bringing local business leaders, educators and government officials together for a common goal, Rickman said.

The need to unite officials from Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools became evident during years of research, said Melissa Lu with the Archway Partnership, a University of Georgia program that came to Dalton to help the community improve itself.

What came out of discussions among Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce staff, city government officials, county commissioners and leaders from both school systems was the Readers to Leaders initiative.

The initiative is attempting to saturate the community with reading programs at schools, libraries, doctor’s offices and community centers throughout the county to improve students’ education to improve the quality of the up-and-coming workforce.

Lu said the GPEE visit will be a rare chance to “showcase what we’ve learned.”

“We hope to highlight that we have a real community initiative here,” she said. “It’s not limited to a school or a district. This is a community endeavor. I think that’s unusual.”

It is, Rickman said.

“It happens in some places,” she said, “but we wish it would happen a whole lot more.”

Fostering ‘birth to work’

The theme of the bus tour, “Birth to Work Pipeline — Ideas That Work,” is serendipitous for the area, said chamber Director of Workforce Development Barbara Ward.

“Dalton and Whitfield County are trying to work inside the birth through education to work pipeline right now,” she said. “That’s not a school thing. That’s a community thing. We have things to show to the rest of the state, things that work.”

One of those things — something Ward said she hopes to highlight during the tour — is a mechatronics curriculum at the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy. Mechatronics is an overlapping of mechanical, electrical, computer, software and control engineering. Several local business leaders say they have mechatronics jobs, but no one qualified to take them.

The academy Board of Directors, where Ward serves as chamber representative, spearheaded the state-approved curriculum slated to be offered this fall.

“The business community came forward and said ‘We need this,’” Ward said. “The mechatronics curriculum isn’t the first of its kind, but it is the first curriculum the state Department of Education approved as a pathway to jobs.”

Ward said she is “very excited” to host anyone who comes on the tour.

“We feel like things are going well,” she said. “So we feel like we needed to let the folks at GPEE know what we’re doing. I’m glad they’ve decided to come visit ... we will give them a whole synopsis of everything that has happened in Dalton over the last few years.”

A synopsis that’s “a success,” Maddox said.

“The bottom line is that we’re going on a ‘pat on the back’ tour,” he said. “A best practices tour. We want to share across the state that Dalton is somewhere we see who is doing it right — with education and the economy.”