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Students begin new school year

Staff Photos: Erin Evans<Br>
Above, Lakeshia Eason walks her son Terrell into the Flint Hill Elementary School on the first day of the new school year Thursday morning. The new school, which is located on Airport Road in Oxford, houses students from Palmer Stone, East Newton and Ficquett elementary schools.

Staff Photos: Erin Evans
Above, Lakeshia Eason walks her son Terrell into the Flint Hill Elementary School on the first day of the new school year Thursday morning. The new school, which is located on Airport Road in Oxford, houses students from Palmer Stone, East Newton and Ficquett elementary schools.

COVINGTON -- Students in Newton County joined several other metro Atlanta counties by returning to school this week.

The first day of the 2011-12 school year was Thursday, when about 19,000 students were expected to return to Newton County School Systems' 22 schools. Teachers and other school staff returned to school at the end of July to get ready for the new school year.

Officials at NCSS reported that the first day of the school year went well, despite some expected and unexpected glitches.

"Learning new transportation routes, a glitch in transportation software, afternoon traffic flow at the relocated Newton County Theme School at Ficquett and drop-off and pick up at the new Flint Hill Elementary School were severe first day challenges," said NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews on Thursday afternoon.

He said the transportation department's software, which produces bus routes for the system, failed to determine the correct routes for some students. NCSS Deputy Superintendent for Operations Dennis Carpenter said the transportation department is "working on it diligently" and hopes to have the problem quickly resolved.

Additionally, traffic flow connected to the opening of the newly located Newton County Theme School at Ficquett did cause backups on Newton Drive, Mill Street and U.S. Highway 278, which resulted in a longer than usual student dismissal, system officials reported.

School Principal Ruth Anne Smith said it took approximately one hour for students to clear the building at the end of the day. She did note that this was still much better than the student dismissal on the first day of school at the Fairview location, when afternoon dismissal took approximately two hours. This year, approximately 800 students are attending the theme school compared to only 450 when the school first opened at Fairview.

"We are encouraging parents to not park in the bus lanes in the front of the school as this clogged up traffic flow in the afternoon," Mathews said. "Additionally, as we were anticipating, the Highway 142 and Airport Road bottleneck at the new Flint Hill Elementary caused delays as well. Newton County government officials are very aware of the roads issue connected with the new elementary school."

He encourages parents to utilize bus transportation for students at all base school sites, especially Flint Hill Elementary, as this has a significant impact on traffic at the schools.

"Once bus ridership increases each day at Flint Hill, traffic flow should improve until such time as county government is able to more fully address traffic flow issues surrounding the new school," Carpenter said.

Officials planned to hold a briefing on transportation on Thursday.

"We will learn the new bus routes, get the transportation software working, anxiously observe the county's progress on the road situation at Flint Hill, and regroup related to theme school pick-up in the afternoon," Mathews said.

Other snafus included the new Ombudsman program, a national provider of alternative education that replaced Sharp Learning Center through outsourcing to save funding, being forced to temporarily meet in the old Sharp building on Newton Drive due to unexpected delays regarding state approval of the two new sites on Brown Bridge and Salem roads.

Additionally, East Newton Elementary School's cafeteria staff experienced a mechanical problem in the kitchen early Tuesday morning and were expected to only be able to serve cold meals, like sandwiches, salads and cereal for part of the week, according to an e-mail sent to parents.

Other Newton County students also made a few adjustments this year. Bus schedules and bell times were changed to adjust to a staff cut in the transportation department, and high schoolers reverted to a seven-period schedule this year.

Mathews said that the school year is off to a good start, considering the opening of the Newton College & Career Academy at Alcovy High School, the new Flint Hill Elementary School and the theme school, as well as other changes.

"My visits to Flint Hill Elementary School, Clements Middle and Eastside High School (showed) students in class and teachers providing orientation and instruction on this first day of school," Mathews said.

This school year, students will get extended breaks over Thanksgiving, at the end of December, in mid February and at the beginning of April. The 2011-12 school year ends on May 23.

Henry, Rockdale and Social Circle schools, among several others in the metro Atlanta region, also began school this week.