The more than 600 employees of the McDuffie County School System gathered in the Thomson High School auditorium Aug. 5 for their annual back-to-school kick-off meeting.
It was most of the staff's first time to see and hear their new superintendent, Jim LeBrun, who was hired at the beginning of July by the McDuffie Board of Education. Mr. LeBrun replaces Mark Petersen, who retired in June after serving five years in McDuffie County.
First Baptist Youth Minister David Lambert gave a brief devotional to start the meeting, offering encouragement to the staff members who began their new school year with news of state revenue cuts and furloughs.
"You as a school system do not stand alone in this community," he said. "The churches are behind you. ... Remember the children. You can speak powerful words to the children, letting them know they are known and they matter."
Each of the school principals -- Thomson High's Rudy Falana, Thomson-McDuffie Junior High's Steve Rhodes, Thomson Middle's Claude Powell, Norris Elementary's Nancy Lovelady, Dearing Elementary's Laura Hughes, Thomson Elementary's Anita Cummings, Maxwell Elementary's Donna Bennett and McDuffie Achievement Center's Cecil Strong -- introduced the newest members of their staff. Mr. LeBrun said there are 38 new certified employees in the system this year, and 15 of those are "fresh out of college."
Dr. Hughes, whose school is located close to McCorkle Nurseries, thanked the school board members for hiring a full-time English as a Second Language teacher. In the past, DES had to rely on a paraprofessional or volunteer to serve as a mediator or translator between school faculty and Spanish-speaking parents.
As the principal of the county's newest school and exclusive alternative program, Mr. Strong received a standing ovation when he approached the podium.
"We are a new facility," he said. "And we are on a new road to success."
Finally, Mr. LeBrun introduced himself.
"I believe in continuous improvement. If we are not improving, we are standing still, and if we are standing still, we are going to soon be run over, and nobody's going to run over the McDuffie County School System," he said as the room filled with applause.
Mr. LeBrun then issued a warning to the faculty that they will see him in their classrooms.
"I like to be where the action is," he admitted, bringing laughter as he described past instances where he has relieved teachers of their duties so they could take a much-needed restroom break during a busy day.
The superintendent then brought up more serious topics: No Child Left Behind and Annual Yearly Progress.
"I firmly believe that NCLB is a system developed by politicians to ultimately undermine public education by designing a system in which every school system in America will ultimately be labeled a failure," he said. "This simply is not right. A system like McDuffie County can have 88 to 90 percent of their student meeting or exceeding expectations on standardized testing, yet due to the scores of a handful of a subpopulation of students, the entire system can be kept from making AYP."
He then talked to the staff about the new ethics policy based on the Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators.
Mr. LeBrun said he is just as supportive of teachers as he is of students.
His voice filled with emotion and his eyes with tears as he told the staff that he and his wife, Cheryl, "prayed long and hard about our decision to come to McDuffie County. We trusted our faith that we would be called to a community that genuinely needed us. We believe we have found that community."
After handing out door prizes from insurance and investment vendors that included tote bags, gift cards and coffee makers, the superintendent dismissed the staff, acknowledging that they had many hours of work to do in their classroom and less time to accomplish it because of newly implemented furloughs.
"You are the backbone of our system. You are the heartbeat and you are the difference that makes each of our children feel special, worthy and someone that matters," he said. "Please do not ever lose sight of why it was you decided to become an educator."