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Newton leaders visit RCA

CONYERS - Educational and business leaders from Newton County got a taste Tuesday of what could be housed in the county to help advance its high school students.

A group of personnel from the Newton County School System, as well as Newton County political and industry officials, toured the Rockdale Career Academy Tuesday morning. NCSS invited some of the leaders for the tour after submitting a charter petition for a college and career academy in Newton County to the Georgia Department of Education earlier this month.

"We have a concern for students as they leave high school to be prepared for whatever work they go into. ... We want them to be gainfully employed in our community and other communities," said Newton County Schools Superintendent Steve Whatley. "It becomes critical nowadays as we face competition, not only in our state ... but in a global society. We need to look at programs ... that offer pathways to prepare students for the future."

Because Rockdale is a neighboring county, Whatley wanted the group to tour RCA to get a look into what could come to Newton County.

"This is not something new," Whatley said. "It's added value to Rockdale. It can be a lesson for us in what we do as we plan (for a career academy)."

The tour group included teachers from NCSS middle and high schools, Newton County Board of Education member Eddie Johnson, members of the Newton County Chamber of Commerce, representatives from several governmental entities, area college representatives, and business workers from area automotive dealers and other trade organizations. RCA CEO Tim Melvin and Irene Munn, legislative council to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, also joined the tour.

"(A career academy) can be whatever dream you want with whatever students you want," said Munn, who speaks to systems interested in starting a career academy and encourages the formation of them. "We know the state needs to support the efforts of every career academy out there. ... I'm confident they will continue to put money in the budget, even though money is being cut all over the state. We've got to change the way we are educating kids."

Melvin, who has been involved with the RCA project for five years and before that worked at a career academy in Savannah, encouraged Newton County to follow through with the plans of starting a career academy.

"Nothing touches it in terms of ability to turn the lives around for the kids ... and make them viable, productive citizens," he said.

It also could provide a cost savings to the school system. RCA was built in lieu of a fourth high school in Rockdale County - students come from all three high schools to a centralized location, which helps with overcrowding at the high schools and also prevents the need to recreate multiple spaces for expensive high-tech classes that might not have a high enrollment.

"Each high school has (career, technical and agricultural) education classes, but they are more like business services," Melvin said. "We offer (programs) that are too expensive to replicate three times."

In Rockdale County, RCA students start each school day at one of the three high schools - their home schools - then are transported to the career academy, which takes between five and 15 minutes. Their test scores and records are kept at their home schools, and they graduate at their home schools, rather than with the career academy.

At RCA, students take one to three 90-minute courses per day. The courses include core classes like math, science, English and social studies and technical classes in the fields of culinary arts, automotive, construction and broadcasting, in addition to 14 other areas of programming.

Melvin said some students may earn college credits and more importantly gain experience in the field of their choice either at school or through an internship or apprenticeship at an area business.

Although some NCSS officials want to make sure the program is what the community wants, Melvin warned that the program might be needed more than they think. He said when Rockdale County Public Schools started planning the program more than six years ago, school officials envisioned 600 students starting at the school in year one and thought the enrollment would grow to 900 by year four. However, the program opened with 1,252 students and has 1,650 enrolled this school year.

"Each year, we've continued to grow and grow and grow," Melvin said. "It's a popular program."

Academic rigor also has increased in Rockdale County. Melvin said RCA students outscored students at the other high schools on every End of Course Test and in each subject area of the Georgia High School Graduation Test - and it's not because "the best and the brightest" students were handpicked to attend RCA.

"We have no admission criteria other than they have to be a living, breathing high school student in Rockdale County," Melvin said. "Our belief is that ... you make stars. We create high-quality instruction for them, and it makes a difference."

After completing RCA, students are expected to be ready for the next phase of their lives in the military, at a technical college or four-year university, or in the work place.

RCA, which is housed in a 165,000-square-foot building and sits on 49 acres off Parker Road, also partners with local colleges to provide a space for adult learners. The large auditorium, cafeteria and additional classroom space also serve as areas for RCPS professional development and some special school and community events.

"We strive to be the educational heartbeat for Rockdale County," Melvin said, adding that the school also is applying for an expansion grant.

James Woodard, director of Career, Technical and Agricultural Education at NCSS, said NCSS already received a charter planning grant for $8,000 and is applying for a $3.1 million grant for the construction or renovation of a career academy in Newton County.

"We still have a lot of work to be done and a lot of decisions to make," Woodard said. "This career academy has the opportunity to make a pivotal impact on every generation in the Newton County community."

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: At a glance

Rockdale Career Academy

· CEO: Tim Melvin

· Location: 1064 Culpepper Drive, Conyers

· Phone: 770-388-5677

· Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday

· Online: www.rockdale.k12.ga.us/

Schools/RCA

· Opened: Fall 2006

· Size: 165,000 square-foot building, 49-acre campus

· 2009 Student Enrollment: 1,650

· Projected 2009 Enrollment: 900

· 2005 Student Enrollment: 1,252

· Adult Learners: About 1,300 each year

· Schedule: Three 90-minute class periods per day

· Programming Areas: 18

· Partners: DeKalb Technical College, Georgia Perimeter College, Clayton State University, area businesses