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‘Pretty incredible’: Students react to new JCHS building

Marley Brown went into the new Jackson County High School with an open mind.

She figured the sizable facility on Skelton Rd. would stand as an upgrade over the 30-year-old building she’d left behind. But the senior cheerleading captain wasn’t expecting the across-the-board enhancements she saw when she walked through its doors.

“I’d say it’s pretty incredible with what they’ve done with the building,” Brown said. “I think there’s a lot of new technology and cool things about the school that are definitely improvements from our last school.”

Brown was one of approximately 1,620 students who arrived for the first day of classes Friday (July 30) at the spacious, new, state-of-the-art Jackson County High School. Her reaction to the facility mirrored those of others, who praised the building’s size, design, amenities and less-constrained feeling.

“It feels like a high school,” said senior Kennedy Harris. “I think our old school felt like the middle school, so I think this actually feels like a real high school, and you get what a high school should actually look like.”

Similarly, Tyler Craven, also a senior, was surprised by the scope of the 293,700 square-foot structure and its appearance, which he said exceeded his expectations. Craven was particularly struck by the architecture of the school’s lobby space.

“The way that the ceiling is so tall, and all the beams in the front of the building, it kind of ties everything into the school,” he said.

He also pointed to the open-feel of the new facility.

“A lot more space than the other one,” Craven said. “I don’t feel as tight.”

One of the notable features of the new JCHS is its college-oriented layout. The school offers wide hallways, charging stations and spaces for both collaboration and study. Desks are designed for both independent learning and to form learning pods.

“I think the college layout is really interesting, especially for a senior who is getting ready to look into college and apply,” Brown said. “I think it will be a good experience to walk around this campus and compare it to actual colleges.”

It’s not just the scholastic space of the new JCHS that has impressed students. Craven, a band captain, points to the new Panther football stadium, which includes an artificial turf surface.

“The turf is different but it’s definitely — for me in marching band — so much easier to march on,” Craven said. “It’s a nice, level surface.”

Harris, a basketball and soccer player, is partial to the aesthetics of the new gym, which features a unique grayish flooring.

“I love the new gym colors so much,” Harris said. “It looks way bigger, way nicer. The ones at the old high school were nice too, but I think this looks awesome.”

Brown points to the media center — where she has an online class — with its variety of seating options and an increased number of books compared to the old facility. She also enjoys the flexibility of the more modern classrooms of the new JCHS.

“I think they’ve made the classrooms in a way that if you’re an auditory learner or visual learner, you’re able to get that experience in the classrooms as opposed to the old classrooms,” Brown said.

Brown expects the new school to be a huge draw for the west side of Jackson County.

“Even though we’re already growing at a rapid pace, I think it will grow more because of it,” Brown said.

The opening of the school this year will mean the class of 2022 will become the first graduating class of the newly-minted JCHS. Brown, Harris and Craven all expressed pride in carrying that distinction.

But Harris added that moving there now as seniors — and only having one year in the new building — is “kind of sad.”

“Because I wish we could stay here a little bit longer,” she said. “We’re the (class) that never got the new stuff. Because the middle school got re-done once we left, and now we only get a year in the new high school … But it’s still good that we’re in it for one year, and we’re the first class that gets to graduate. That’s exciting.”

Local rower rises to international success

Sophia Hahn’s rowing career began as many things do: a Google search.

Around nine years ago, Hahn’s mother was seeking a sport for her daughter that would bolster confidence and instill the virtues of teamwork, so she went online.

“She Googled sports for tall girls, and the first thing that came up was rowing,” Hahn explained.

Nearly a decade after that internet search, Hahn is a world champion.

The 20-year-old Chateau Elan resident recently helped the women’s U23 Eight capture the gold in the World Rowing Championships. The race was held July 11 in the Czech Republic.

“It was incredible,” said Hahn, also a collegiate rower at Yale. “Especially because my season was canceled at Yale, and I’ve been training on my own without a team for the past year and a half … It was a really good finish to a very unprecedented year.”

Hahn spent two weeks in the Czech Republic with the U.S. team.

“To be surrounded by so many incredible women, and racing with so many incredible women was definitely a thrilling experience as well,” she said.

Hahn and the U.S. squad defeated the Netherlands, dominating the second half of the race, to take the gold medal by four seconds. After what Hahn called “a rough start,” the eight-member U.S. squad grabbed the lead around the midway point and never looked back.

“Everyone became very composed,” said Hahn, noting the four weeks of practice the team put in. “There was a large amount of trust in the boat … I think we just trusted each other and relaxed, and we were able to pull through.”

Hahn normally rows in either the middle of the boat or near its stern at Yale but was positioned near the bow in the 2-seat for the U.S. team, a spot that demands technical and clean rowing.

“I’ve never raced 2-seat before, so it definitely was an interesting experience … I actually enjoyed it,” Hahn said.

Interestingly, Hahn’s love for rowing began in the United Kingdom.

Her father’s product-manager job for Ryobi relocated the family from Braselton to the UK for seven years (they’ve since moved back to Braselton). The Hahns just happened to be living in Henley-on-Thames, a British town with the reputation of being the rowing capital of the world, when Hahn’s mother began Google searching athletic activities. One of the rowing clubs there was offering a summer camp.

“I’ve loved it ever since, and I stuck to it,” Hahn said.

Hahn has racked up quite the résumé since then. She had rowed six times in international competition prior to the world championships, according to her U.S. Rowing bio. And, of course, she’s a Division-I rower at Yale where she has the majority of her college career still ahead of her.

Hahn — who is classified as a sophomore after taking a semester off to retain some NCAA eligibility — is set to return to what should be a strong Yale team. The Bulldogs’ roster includes 15-16 rowers who were nominated for international competition.

Academically, Hahn is a global affairs major with interest in a career as a diplomat or attending law school.

“But I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.

As far as her rowing career goes, she hopes the 2024 Summer Olympics are in her future.

“I do,” Hahn said. “Hopefully 2024 is a goal, but because I’m also graduating in 2024, it also might be a little difficult. But I definitely want to be on an Olympic team or at least a senior team post-college.”

NGHS officials point to area COVID surge, urge people to vaccinate

Northeast Georgia Health System doctors pointed to a sharp rise in area COVID cases brought on by the Delta variant and urged vaccination to help guard against the latest wave of the pandemic during a Monday (Aug. 2) press conference.

Dr. Deepak Aggarwal, chief of medical staff of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said the number of COVID-positive patients in the Northeast Georgia Health System jumped from 20 to 110 over the last two weeks, resulting the highest number of cases since February.

Meanwhile, the number of tests coming back positive “has essentially doubled,” Aggarwal said, and the test positivity rate in Hall County stands at 11.7 percent, the highest rate since February when it rose to approximately 35 percent. The average age of COVID-positive patients within the system is 60 with some patients as young as 18.

Eighty-five percent of COVID-positive patients in NGHS facilities are unvaccinated, according to Aggarwal, who expects the latest surge of cases not to peak until September based on the data.

“We know there are many mixed thoughts and opinions about COVID in our community, state and the nation,” Aggarwal said prior to sharing the area COVID statistics. “We know many people are tired of hearing about it, talking about, or feeling the impact of the decisions about masking and distancing. We understand. We are tired, too.”

Dr. Erine Raybon-Rojas, a critical care physician, discussed vaccinations. She said the vaccine is “not a cure” but an effective measure against the severity of COVID-19.

“Getting vaccinated will not guarantee you that you won’t get COVID,” she said. “But the key thing is that getting vaccinated dramatically protects you against severe infection, reducing the chance that you will die from COVID or be hospitalized from COVID.”

Raybon-Rojas noted that the lowest rate of vaccination is among those under age 65.

“The vaccine is free, and it’s easy to get,” Raybon-Rojas said. “If you wait until you end up in the hospital to get the vaccine, then it’s too late. Again, we don’t want to say this to scare you or to drive fear. We want to make sure that we are giving you factual information, so that you can reconsider your stance on the vaccine.”

The effect of the pandemic on the system’s staff was also addressed.

Elizabeth Larkins, executive director of medical nursing, said NGHS workers are “still recovering from the strain of the past 18 months.”

“Many of them tell me they don’t know if they can take another surge,” Larkins said.

Larkins said the system is seeing turnover due to emotional and mental health.

“And the new people we see entering these healthcare professions are burning out quickly,” she said.

Asked about the staff needed for the next wave of cases, Larkins said she’s discussed numbers for temporary supplemental staff with the chief nurse executive.

“We’re looking for about 550 RNs we don’t have right now,” Larkins said. “It’s significant.”

As for the effect of the surge on hospital operations, Aggarwal said the system is continuing with its current plan for surgeries but is monitoring the data on a daily basis. He referenced the beginning of 2021 when elective surgeries were stopped.

“We are hoping we don’t go back to those times,” he said.

The system isn’t currently approaching that point, Aggarwal said. 

“Right now, we are not that close yet,” he said. “We are able to do the surgeries that our community needs, our patients need and able to have the staff to take care of them.”

As for facilities to treat the rise in cases, the hospital received an extension for its mobile medical unit “for a few weeks,” according to Aggarwal, which NGHS will continue to utilize.

Aggarwal was also asked about a recommendation for Hall County schools concerning mask use.

“I think that’s something that we are going to have a conversation with the school county system (about) and where they are and what we can do to help with that,” he said.

Hoschton moves closer to new city hall, wastewater plant expansion

Hoschton moved a step closer to both a new city hall building and expanding its wastewater treatment facility.

The city council voted Monday (Aug. 2) to accept a city hall design-build plan from local contractor BM&K and plans from EMI to complete the next steps required for Hoschton’s wastewater plant expansion.

The city hall designs will cost $49,000. When the drawings are complete, Hoschton leaders have the option to contract with BM&K for construction or use another builder to carry out the designs.

Meanwhile, the next phase of preparation for the wastewater facility expansion will cost $84,375.

The expansion would increase Hoschton’s system to a 950,000 gallon-per-day rate.

City engineer Jerry Hood said projected developments within Hoschton would require a 800,000 to 900,000 gallon-per-day rate. The city currently operates at 160,000 gallons per day.


With the approved designs, chief building official Joe Hayes said the metal roof and poles of the new city hall building could go up in 12-16 weeks.

The structure will be built with future business use in mind as the city expects this to be a temporary city hall location.

“They understand that we’re trying to do this as temporary … we’re going to outgrow it pretty quick,” Hayes said.

The building will consist of three units that will vary in size, each of which could eventually be rented by retail businesses or restaurants. The facade will mirror the rest of Hoschton’s historic downtown.

“I want the outside to last for another century and a half,” mayor Shannon Sell said.

Sell expects the city will “spend every bit of $1 million” on the building due to increased construction costs. But he expects construction to go swiftly “as long as the market doesn’t go crazy.”

“Because it’s an easy building to construct,” Sell said.

The new city hall would be located on a lot adjacent to the current city hall.


The expansion project would require “just about doubling” all the components at the wastewater plant, according to Hood.

“You do have room to do that,” Hood said.

Moving forward with the project includes a few big steps: receiving a waste-load allocation from the Environmental Protection Division (EPD), completing an anti-degradation analysis, having an environmental assessment done and a design-development report for the facility completed.

The process could be lengthy.

“We go through everything that EPD is going to require us to go through and we get it designed up, we wouldn’t even be turning shovel dirt for a year and a half, two years,” city administrator Gary Fesperman said.


The council approved a $26,364 change order for a 7/10 of a mile paving project on West Jefferson St., bringing the total cost of the project to around $275,000.

The additional money was needed due to the amount of mud and dirt, rather than base, that work crews have encountered on what is an old road.

After funding sources and SPLOST money are applied, the city will likely have to use approximately $60,000 out of its general fund to cover the remaining cost, according to Fesperman.

This is expected to be the final change order for the project, however.

“We’re going to get a good street when it’s finished,” Sell said.



With the start of the school year, East Jefferson St. — which runs in front of West Jackson Elementary School — was recently changed to a one-way route during morning drop off (7-8 a.m.) and afternoon pickup (2-3 p.m.) hours.

Parents can no longer access the portion of East Jefferson St. that fronts the school coming from Hwy. 53.

Sell, when asked about the change by a reporter, said a city group met with the school on June 22 about the matter.

“We told the school on June 22 that if they didn’t come up with a better plan, that was what we were going to do,” Sell said.

The change did not come through a city council vote.

Sell, who lives along that section of East Jefferson St., said two-way school traffic blocked the road.

“We’re just trying to keep city streets open,” Sell said. “The school system, the way they had it designed, it blocked that road for two hours a day, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.”

Sell said the change allows “at least some people to get through there, at least one way.” He said there’s still “fine-tuning to do” regarding the traffic with the change.

“But I think they added 300 students to that school this year, so just call it a work in progress,” Sell said. “It’s only been two days. It was far smoother today (Monday) than it was last Friday.”

Calvin J. Watts approved as Gwinnett County Schools superintendent

The Gwinnett County Board of Education unanimously approved Calvin J. Watts as the next superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) on Friday (July 30), according to a press release from the school district.

Watts — a former GCPS school leader and assistant superintendent who most recently served as superintendent of Kent School District in Washington — was the sole finalist for the Gwinnett position.

By law, the school board had to wait a minimum of 14 days between announcing its finalist for the position of superintendent on July 15 and making the appointment official.

Watts left Gwinnett six years ago to serve as superintendent of Kent School District in Washington state.

“I grew up in a suburb of Seattle and also graduated from high school in Washington,” he said. “As I reflect upon my leadership journey, I’ve always thought of the Pacific Northwest as the place where I grew up ‘personally.’ However, I relocated to the Southeast in the early stages of my professional career in education, and since then, I have always referred to Gwinnett County Public Schools as the place where I grew up ‘professionally.’

“I remain grateful for the opportunities J. Alvin Wilbanks and other leaders provided me while I was in Gwinnett… opportunities that let me grow, learn, achieve, and lead,” Watts added. “I considered my tenure in GCPS as one of the highlights of my career in education. In Gwinnett, I learned from many incredible leaders and leadership experiences ... It’s good to be home.”

One of Watts’ first plans will be to launch a “Look, Listen and Learn Tour” that will focus on visiting schools and reconnecting with the Gwinnett community.