Gaston Co. Schools teachers prepare for the first day of school

30,000 students are enrolled in the district ranging from Pre-K to 12th grade.
Tecahers are checking their lists, finishing professional development, and adding the finishing touches to their classrooms before students come back.
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 6:26 PM EDT
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LOWELL, N.C. (WBTV) - Summer is over and the school bells are about to ring in Gaston County Schools.

The first day of school for 30,000 students is Aug. 17.

“The first day of school is always a blast,” said longtime teacher Paris Suttenfield.

On Tuesday, the district held a back-to-school media availability to discuss teacher vacancies, school safety, breakfast, and lunch prices, and COVID-19 safety protocols.

“We are very excited to welcome students back to school for the 2022-2023 academic year,” stated Superintendent W. Jeffrey Booker. “Our teachers and school employees have been working diligently to prepare for the new year, which will bring many enriching and wonderful opportunities for our students.”

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Suttenfield, a music education teacher, spent Tuesday morning putting the finishing touches on her classroom. Wednesday marks the beginning of her 19th year as a teacher.

In a country seeing thousands of teacher vacancies, Suttenfield says she’s pushing forward and doing her best to support her students.

“It’s all about the students for me and why I stay. I hope other educators will instill that in themselves that these students really do need us,” Suttenfield said.

The district is working with teacher assistants, short and long-term substitutes, other school personnel, and retired teachers to try and fill the 70 vacant teacher positions as well as bus driver vacancies.

“You rely on other personnel to help fill in on a temporary basis so that someone is there, someone is driving the bus, someone is in the classroom, and doing those things that need to be done until we can find employees on a permanent basis and we’re working on that,” said the district’s Chief Communications Officer Todd Hagans. “We’re hiring on a regular basis.”

The district started a teacher assistants to teachers program last December through a partnership with Gaston College, Belmont Abbey College, and Gardner-Webb University.

The district recruited 40 TAs but due to increased interest, expanded the program to include 50 TAs like Brandy Guiton who will have her own classroom this school year.

Guiton has worked at Lowell Elementary School for the last 17 years as a TA and occasional bus driver. Guiton says her role as a TA was critical, especially after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With this program, she earned her four-year teacher licensure and has five remaining classes at Belmont Abbey College.

“I assisted in every grade level I wasn’t in one particular grade level, I did every grade level I assisted with everyone,” Guiton said.

Guiton will be teaching fourth grade this year and says she’s looking forward to seeing the students she’s been working with over the last few years.

“Yesterday at the open house was a very neat thing because the kids already know me so when they walked in and saw my name as a teacher they were a little surprised, but we are very excited,” Guiton said.

When it comes to school safety, the district has at least one school resource officer assigned to every school.

In addition, visitors are required to show their ID and must be buzzed into the building through a surveillance system.

The district also has safety wands and random metal detector screenings for students and staff to prevent weapons and other unauthorized items from making it into the school buildings.

Lowell Elementary School Principal Kristin Kiser says they’re being proactive to prevent violence as they’ve seen in other districts across the state and country.

“We have wanding processes that take care of a lot of that. Our front door, we have a doorbell, everybody has to show ID, we have not permitted guests in the building and we’re going to continue with that just because of a lot that we’ve learned through these acts of violence,” Kiser said.

Gaston County Schools is starting close to two weeks earlier than several other N.C. districts, which are starting on Aug. 29.

According to a press release from GCS, the earlier start date was adopted by the Board of Education in March to allow students to complete mid-year exams prior to winter break. The Board’s decision is in response to a school calendar survey where approximately 70 percent of respondents including students, parents, employees, and others favored a school calendar with the first semester ending in December and the second semester beginning in January. In addition, an earlier start date is necessary to have a similar number of days in the semesters.

The district is still working through payroll issues that it started experiencing in January after switching to the Oracle payroll system. The district did off-cycle pay runs to correct paycheck issues.

“With our payroll system, we have made great strides in making that system work for us. We certainly had our challenges when it was implemented in January and we continue to face some challenges with the system. Anytime you implement a new system there are going to be bumps along the road but we feel good about where we are and when issues come up we’re going to address them and we’re going to do what we can to make sure things are taken care,” Hagans said.

Previous coverage:

Gaston County Schools continuing to correct payment issues due to new payroll system

Employees frustrated with prolonged payment delays

Previous reporting from WBTV revealed dozens of employees weren’t receiving the correct amount for their paychecks in the spring.

According to Hagans, retroactive pay and other payments were to be paid to employees in June.

Any employee who is still experiencing payroll issues should contact their principal who will then help coordinate the next steps with the payroll department.

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