Oct. 14—"If you ever really want to hurt me, tell me I don't care about the kids, because that really cuts me," said Judy Gilreath, who spent two decades in Whitfield County Schools, the last eight years as superintendent. "I always tried to make the best decision for the kids."
"I approached every decision as a parent and thought about what I'd want for my child," said Gilreath, who retired this summer. "I want Whitfield County Schools to be a place where teachers want to teach, bus drivers want to drive, parents want to send their children and kids enjoy coming to school."
Gilreath has "done a fantastic job and brought us a long way" as superintendent, but her value extends even beyond her professional achievements, said Bill Worley, chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Education. She is "one of the finest human beings I've ever met."
More than anything else, Mike Ewton learned how to "work with people and show them they're valued" from Gilreath, said the new superintendent. "Anyone who worked with her observed that, and it made me a better leader and person."
Retiring was "a tough decision, (but) I was just so tired" from the last year-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Gilreath. "It really wore me out physically and emotionally."
COVID-19 was "by far the most difficult" challenge during her superintendent tenure, "because it changed so much from day to day," she said. "We're not medical experts, so we followed advice from the health department, but that (guidance) changed regularly" as the situation evolved.
"And the contact tracing was unreal," Gilreath said. "We spend every penny the state gives us for nurses, but it's not enough, so we don't have nurses in every school, and principals were having to handle contact tracing" in some schools, adding to an already heavy burden.
Whitfield County Schools opted to have in-person learning, while also making virtual learning available, when the school system started the 2020-21 school year nearly a month later than usual, and encouraged, but did not mandate, masks for students.
"We had people who wanted a mask mandate and people who didn't want any masks at all," she said. "Whatever we did, we weren't going to make everybody happy, and we were going to get criticized."
She does feel vindicated regarding the school system's emphasis on in-person education, as early test results indicate minimal learning loss for students who attended classes in person, and the school system isn't offering virtual learning in 2021-22, although students who desire it can do so through various offerings from the state.
"Some do fine (virtual learning), but not a majority," Gilreath said. "We know it's not what's best for kids, so why would we continue to offer it?"
Mandie Jones is grateful Gilreath tried to maintain as much in-person learning as possible during the pandemic.
"I have been pleased with the (student) data I've seen so far, because it doesn't look like we're going to have the learning loss we thought we might," said Jones, who was an assistant principal at Southeast Whitfield High School last year and is now the principal of Northwest Whitfield High School. "What I personally saw last year is kids in the building having more success" than those engaged in virtual learning — "with some exceptions, of course — because it's just hard for teenagers to manage their time and (organize) their day" on their own.
"I don't think you'll see those (learning) gaps with our kids you'll see in other systems" where students attended little or no in-person school, according to Amy Smith, Whitfield County Schools' director of middle school curriculum. "We did what was best for kids, (and) the numbers don't lie."
Paula Wheeler, who took over as Varnell Elementary School's principal for the 2021-22 year and was the school's assistant principal the past seven years, saw noteworthy learning gains in students who returned to in-person learning from virtual learning during the 2020-21 term.
"They were like sponges — they just soaked it up — and you could see the difference," Wheeler said. By the end of the 2020-21 year, "I think we only had four students" still learning virtually.
"We aggressively tried to get kids to come back" in person last year, Gilreath said. "We didn't just tell them they could come back, we called them and their parents."
At Coahulla Creek High School, "it seemed like the kids in school were more connected, (as) I saw a lot of the kids doing virtual learning feel disconnected," said Drew Bragg, who is the new principal of Valley Point Middle School and was Coahulla Creek's assistant principal the past two years. "If they were struggling in a class, teachers were willing to help them, but it's not the same as meeting face to face and having a teacher show you right in front of you."
In-person learning "is definitely better," Bragg added. "There are some kids who do well with the virtual, but not the majority."
Whitfield County Schools has a high poverty rate — during the 2019-20 school year, 70% of Whitfield County Schools' students received free or reduced-price meals due to their socioeconomic status — so "a lot of our kids don't even have internet at home," Gilreath said. "I wish we could have done more" when the school system had to use virtual learning for the final two months of the 2019-20 school year, "but it all just happened so fast — we had to close so suddenly — and how can you plan for something like that?
Still having a presence
Gilreath is "comfortable" retiring now because "of the good people we have in place," including the new superintendent, deputy superintendent Karey Williams and Michelle Caldwell, director of accountability and assessment, she said. "I'm not worried about the school system."
And Gilreath will still be a presence in the school system, as she plans to volunteer as a mentor for early-elementary students, like those in grades one and two.
When she became an administrator, "I missed the kids the most," she said. "They really keep your fire lit."
And so many students "need mentors, someone to take an interest in them, because of how busy parents are these days with work" and other obligations, she said. "Whenever people asked me (when I was superintendent) how they could help the school system, I always told them 'Be a mentor.'"
Catching students young, before they fall too far behind, is key, especially for literacy, she said.
"By middle school, if kids can't read, they take the attitude of 'I'm not going to read because I don't want to,' because it's too embarrassing for their ego to admit they can't read."
"And you need to be able to read to do anything, even math problems," she said. "Up to third grade, you're learning to read, but after that, you're reading to learn."
That's part of the reason Gilreath emphasized literacy, especially reading at grade level by third grade, during her time as superintendent, she said.
"Our student population," with so many non-native English speakers, "have to learn English and learn to read, and, a lot of them, their parents can't read English, so they can't help them at home."
When students improve literacy, "they do better in all subjects," not only reading/English, because they can read the content, and "we've seen the evidence," Ewton said. "We're going to continue to use those research-based approaches with our students," rather than chase new fads in curriculum, because "everyone has something for sale."
"I remember learning some of the new literacy strategies" as a social studies and language arts teacher at North Whitfield Middle School, and "they were mind-blowing at the time, because they were new, but now you see them regularly in classrooms," said Bragg, who spent a dozen years as a teacher and assistant principal in Whitfield County Schools before becoming Valley Point Middle School's principal. "What was an anomaly has become the norm, and we've seen the benefits with students, for sure."
In addition to volunteering in the school system, Gilreath plans to help her daughter, Leslie Weaver, a nurse practitioner with three clinics, with bookkeeping and accounting, she said.
"I've taught at the university level as an adjunct, too, and I might do more of that."
She'll have more time to spend with her family, including her son, Barry, a minister in Florence, Alabama; daughter, Melissa Frost, a teacher in Catoosa County; nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, but she'll also miss her second "family" in the central office, she said. "Their kids are like my kids, and I'll miss the people."