Reflecting on the past, excited about the future as Whitfield County Schools celebrates 150 years

Mike Ewton

As we ring in 2022, we have high hopes for what the coming year will bring. For us as individuals and the organizations we work with, it is as important to be mindful of the here and now as it is necessary to have a vision of what we want the future to look like. The ritual of celebrating the new year allows us to do both. This new year affords us an special opportunity to also reflect on the past.

In 2022, Whitfield County Schools celebrates its sesquicentennial (150th anniversary is much easier to say). In addition to assessing the present and casting vision for the future, we want to take time this year to reflect on where we have been as a school system and as a community.

In 1872, the Georgia legislature approved the formation of public schools. As Ellen Keith Thompson describes in her book "Historic Photographs of Whitfield County Schools" (which I referenced heavily for the historical content of this article), prior to the formation of public school systems there had been meager efforts to fund “poor schools” in some parts of the state but most students in Whitfield County did not benefit from these initiatives. Communities were left to build small schools within walking distance of their homes with little or no support from the county or the state.

I find it fascinating to consider how our state and our community have changed over the last 150 years. Economically, our community has evolved from one driven primarily by individual family farms to the industrial manufacturing center it is today. Socially and culturally, our school system has grown from a series of segregated and physically isolated one-room school houses to a system of 23 consolidated schools educating over 12,500 students of multiple races and ethnicities.

Technologically, our county has become much more interconnected than it was with the wagon-rutted roads and isolated communities of post-Civil War Georgia. We are now accustomed to paved roadway systems and multilane highways that we drive our cars on today. In those days, it would have been fanciful to conceive of having household electricity and telephone connections. Today’s smartphones, internet and social media networks would certainly seem otherworldly.

The experience of going to school has evolved in a similarly dramatic fashion. Following the formation of Georgia public schools in 1872, a full school year would have been the equivalent of about five months with the school calendar scheduled around planting and harvesting seasons. It would have been very unusual for schooling to be offered beyond the seventh grade. Although it was an educational advancement at the time, it is difficult to compare the 1872 public school system with the 180-day school calendar and the broad academic offerings available to our students today.

Those of us who deeply appreciate history often find the relics and artifacts of the past to be interesting glimpses into the lives, struggles and triumphs of those who came before us. We cannot, however, live in the past. In the words of the late 18th century composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

Beyond the mere curiosity of the way things used to be, we should look to the past for inspiration by learning from the experiences of others. Looking back should allow us the opportunity to apply the lessons of history to the ways we lead and learn today.

Partnering with some of our dedicated retired educators and members of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, we have formed a committee with current teachers and administrators who are making plans to help our school system and community celebrate the past, showcase our present and look forward to what the future may hold for our schools, students, and the community.. Throughout 2022 we plan to share articles, interviews and celebrations on our school district and individual school websites, as well as with local news media outlets.

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary, we will look to the past for inspiration as we preserve the fire of educating our students and bettering our community today and for generations to come. Happy New Year from Whitfield County Schools!

Mike Ewton is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

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