With 8,434 students and a governing body elected by the citizens, Oconee County Schools dominates K through 12 education in the county.
In a program organized by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce last month, however, Oconee County Schools was one of four equal presenters.
Westminster Christian Academy, Athens Academy, and host Prince Avenue Christian School, all private schools with fewer than 1,000 students each, had equal time at the podium.
The program was dominated by student presentations, and those students uniformly bragged about the teachers and the learning opportunities their schools provided.
Despite that similarity, the student presentations, along with the introductory comments of the leaders of the schools, gave a sense of the diversity of learning opportunities being offered in the county.
Even with the diversity, the administrators said there is coordination and cooperation among them as they struggle with some of the same challenges, with COVID-19 being mentioned as a common issue they have needed to address.
Cooperation Not Competition
Courtney Bernardi, Chamber president, said, at the beginning of what was labeled a State Of The Schools program, that she was pleased to have each of the schools assembled for the session.
Oconee County School Superintendent Jason Branch picked up on Bernardi’s comment about the gathering of the students and administrators.
“It is a pleasure to live and work in this wonderful community where we can have partnerships that we have and relationships that we have not only with our business and elected officials but our private school partners,” he said.
John Thorsen, Head of School at Athens Academy, returned to the theme later in the hour-long session.
“We do meet on a regular basis, and compare notes and chat and brainstorm and try to work together for the betterment of our community,” Thorsen said. “That is genuine. And that’s not happening a lot of places across the country.
“We’re really fortunate to call Athens home and have wonderful options both private and public for our young people here in Oconee County,” he added.
The program, sponsored by Georgia Power, was held Sept. 16 at the Prince Avenue Christian School campus, 2201 Ruth Jackson Road, off U.S. 78 in the northwest of the county.
Third State Of The Schools
Bernardi launched the State Of The Schools program when she joined the Chamber as president in 2018, but it was not held last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This year’s program is a little different,” Bernardi said at the beginning of the session last month.
“And we’re excited, because not only will you hear from the leaders of our schools,” she said. “You’ll also hear from students.
“These students are some of the most remarkable people you’ll meet,” she added.
The State Of The Schools program provided a rare opportunity for Chamber members to meet students and administrators of the private schools as well as learn directly from the students at the county’s publicly funded system.
Westminster Christian Academy
The participants were still finishing up their lunches as Bernardi launched the program by turning to the smallest of the four programs, Westminster Christian Academy.
Jared Clark, head of school at Westminster Christian Academy, founded in 1989, said the school “is made up of covenant families, a Christian community, that partners to see a spiritual nurturing of our children.”
“We see our kids really grow in their faith in Jesus Christ,” he continued, and they “also receive an excellent, rigorous, academic education.”
Owen Weatherly, a junior at Westminster, said the school was a “close nit community” that provided him support when his father passed away after a six-year battle with cancer.
“That night was hardest night of my life,” he said. “I felt so lonely. I didn’t know really what to turn to. But I remember when I woke up I was receiving so many text messages from my friends and classmates just telling me that they loved me. And pointing me towards Christ.”
Widener Norris, a senior at Westminster, praised the school for its academic rigor and said “We get to engage with each other on really difficult issues on a daily basis.”
Clark said that the school has 365 students and has plans to expand to 500.
“Our desire is to be the best 500-student school in the country,” he said. “We are not there yet.”
The Westminster campus is located at 1640 New High Shoals Road just outside Watkinsville.
Oconee County Schools
Oconee County Schools Superintendent Branch told the gathered Chamber audience that the system had a 2 percent growth rate this year, “which is good, steady growth for us.”
With its 8,434 students, 11 schools spread out throughout the county, and 1,048 full-time employees, the system dwarfs the others on the program at the Chamber event.
Branch introduced three students, whose well-prepared presentations were accompanied with PowerPoint slide shows.
High Shoals Elementary School Fifth Grader Emory Davis reported on a project she had done in the second grade at the school focused on pollution resulting from plastic bags.
“Plastic bags are everywhere. They are ugly and harmful,” she said, so the assignment was to find something useful to do with them.
Her group made a jump rope from the bags and then tested it in the school. “It was challenging to find a design that was sturdy enough,” she reported.
Rohan Patel, an eighth grader at Oconee Middle School, spoke about school culture.
“Every student at OCMS makes friends in the sixth grade that stay with them throughout their whole middle school career,” he said.
Patel said the teachers “create a warm environment for all of us middle school students to feel safe in school” and “They all find ways to academically challenge each and every student.”
Hannah Carter, a senior at North Oconee High School who is dual-enrolled in the political science program at the University of Georgia, praised her high school teachers, who, she said, often come to class before the scheduled sessions to help student.
“The teachers are very dedicated to making sure that their students have all of the concepts down,” she said.
Athens Academy Academy
Thorsen said he is in his eighth year as Head Master at Athens Academy, and ‘My favorite part about our school is the community.
“The students are happy to be in school, especially in a global pandemic,” he said, “but that was the case long before we even heard of COVID-19.”
Athens Academy, founded in 1967, has 915 students, and most of the students who graduate from high school each are expected go on to college.
“We work with each student and family to help them find quality matches that are the right fit for each of them,” Thorsen said. “The best part is they are prepared and ready for what lies ahead.”
Davis McLanahan, a senior at the Academy, said she has been in the school since she was three years old so the school has been “Really important in my life and shaping me as a person.”
“It is pretty obvious,” she said. “Athens Academy is a college preparatory school, and so academics is a huge focus. And it is something that I’ve been very passionate about.”
“The teaches are so, so incredible,” she said. “They don’t only want you to strive to be a good student but to be a good person as well.”
Popi Marquez, also a senior who has been at the school since she was in the first grade, said teachers “took action to bring out the best in me.”
“Teachers just want to support you in every area that you want,” she said. “The effort that you want to put in, they return it times 10.”
The Athens Academy Campus is located at 1281 Spartan Lane off U.S. 441 in the northeast of the county.
Prince Avenue Christian School
Victoria Carter, director of Admissions at Prince Avenue Christian School, stepped in for Head of School Seth Hathaway, who was called out of town on the day of the State of the School program.
Carter focused on the athletic and academic accomplishments of the students in the school, founded in 1978 and now with about 700 enrolled students. She also discussed the many opportunities available to the students.
“Later this year, our seniors will travel to Costa Rica on a mission trip that will allow them to spread Christ’s love by working with orphans, foster children, and low income housing,” she said.
Coleman Ficken, a Fifth Grader, said “Prince has always been a great school for me where I can learn my academics, sports, relationships, and faith in God.”
“Prince has fantastic teachers who help students understand each subject,” he continued.
Bella Rosenthal, an Eighth Grader, said she has been involved in the theater program at the school.
“I am so thankful for the Prince Avenue Fine Arts Department because it makes me feel like I can be someone some day,” she said.
She said she has come to feel “like I have a family here, and this is great place to talk about God and just really come with all the struggles of your life and they’ll help you through it.”
Landys McLellan, a senior at Prince Avenue, said she has been in the school since she was in kindergarten.
“I am so thankful that I have been able to grow up with such support from my Prince family,” she said.
“Going to a smaller school like Prince allows me to form relationships with my teachers that I would not normally find at other schools,” she said. “I can always expect to see my teachers at any game or production our school is putting on.”
Reaction To Program Change
Bernardi told me in an email message on Sept. 30 that “This was the first year we asked the schools to incorporate students into their presentations.
“In the past,” she wrote, “we have only heard from the Superintendent/Head of Schools.
“Now more than ever, I wanted the audience to hear what their schools mean to the students,” she said.
“The addition of the students has been met with rave reviews from those who were in attendance, and I think it is something we will look to continue doing,” she wrote.
I did not attend the State Of The School program, but Bernardi allowed me to ask someone to make a video recording of the session.
John Phillips, who has children in the Oconee County Schools, agreed to do that and produced the video embedded below.
Head of School Clark of Westminster Christian Academy began speaking at 3:14 in the video.
Superintendent Branch from Oconee County Schools began his comments at 19:48 in the video.
Thorsen, Head of School Athens Academy, began his comments at 37:58 in the video.
Carter, director of Admissions at Prince Avenue Christian School, began her comments at 53:58 in the video.