Educating for Life

My wife Crystal and I moved to Henry County in July 1991. That month, we walked into Eagle’s Landing High School to prepare my classroom for the upcoming year and were promptly met by an assistant principal who politely but firmly informed us that students were not permitted in the building without escort. Our t-shirts, shorts, and twenty-something youthfulness confused the assistant principal who had not yet met us since this was only our second day at the school. After some explanations and laughs, we were able to proceed to my room and begin the exciting work of preparing for the new school year.

Much has changed in the twenty-two years since that day. Crystal and I have added five more members to our family. Our oldest has graduated from Eagle’s Landing High School and the second is a now a senior at Eagle’s Landing. I could no longer pass for a high school student, although I am confident that Crystal could still pull that off. Many years have passed, and both our family and Henry County have grown significantly. One thing that has not changed, however, is our commitment to education and to the children and families of our community.

We grew up in north Georgia in families that encouraged and supported education. This was a benefit to us as we learned early in life the value of study and hard work. Our parents placed a premium not only on academic education but also on character development, habits of mind that promote learning and intellectual growth. We are very thankful to have had such positive role models from our earliest years. They not only taught us well but demonstrated thoroughly the virtues of a strong work ethic.

Blessed with dedicated teachers in our local public school system, we graduated together from Ringgold High School with a solid education that enabled us to succeed in college. After college, we moved to Henry County, excited to have jobs in the school system, Crystal teaching elementary school while I taught high school. We have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work with dedicated teachers and with such a caring community in Henry County. The years have passed quickly.

When we arrived in Henry County, student enrollment in the school system was less than 14,000 students. The county population then began booming. During the next twenty years, the student population grew to over 40,000. This has been a dynamic time to live and work in Henry County! I have been fortunate to have various work opportunities with Henry County Schools, and although Crystal began staying home with our children after four years of teaching for Henry County, she keeps her hand in education through summer enrichment camps and tutoring students. Together, we strive to live the dictum that education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a lifestyle.

Work as a teacher, as a principal, and as school superintendent has provided countless opportunities to support student learning in diverse ways. One constant throughout these years, however, has been the conviction that lives are improved through education. Education frees the mind and spirit. I firmly believe that we can embark on no loftier purpose than to educate our citizens, and I echo Abraham Lincoln’s conviction that education is “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” I was reminded of this recently while reading a great book.

In recent weeks, many of us have enjoyed the film version of the musical, Les Miserables. This excellent story derives from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. I recommend the book as a priceless reading experience. Early in the book, Hugo emphasizes the critical importance of education, stating that “society is guilty in not providing universal free education,” for it is education that leads from the dark to the light, from the bondage of ignorance to the freedom of understanding.

The 19th century educational philosopher and practitioner, Charlotte Mason, asserted that education is the handmaid to religion. Kemal Ataturk insisted that “in order to stave off covetousness, greed, and spite, citizens world over must be educated,” and Thomas Jefferson said, “enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Each of these great thinkers holds the belief that education raises people above the sordid pursuit of mere existence and advances them to a higher state of living. As emphasized by Martin Luther King, the goal of true education is to develop intelligence plus character: “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

I believe there is no worthier objective than empowering children to become self-motivated, able learners who can think critically about right and wrong, solve problems, and express themselves in every mode available to them. In short, the true goal of learning is to free individuals from the necessity of formal education so that they become life-long learners. Isaac Asimov was hitting the mark when he stated that the only true education is self-education. As members of our community, we have that mission, that service, and that obligation, to educate our children and to help them become self-motivated, able learners. While this is the professional charge of educators, whether teaching through public, private, or homeschool, the obligation falls also on parents, pastors, business owners, and citizens in general.

We must reach out at every opportunity, either by professional calling or by personal commitment, to our children and our future. Let me encourage every teacher, every pastor, every employer, every parent, every sibling, friend, and family member to reach out. Let no child in our community walk upon a solitary path without the light of learning. If you want a purposeful mission in life immeasurable in its benefit, make a difference in the life of a child.

As public school teachers, we proudly work side-by-side with our counterparts in private and homeschool education. Every child deserves the best education possible, regardless of where they are taught. However, public school teachers are charged with a particular leadership in education, for we are responsible for the formal education of approximately 90% of our community’s children. I am honored to work with many hundreds of dedicated teachers striving for the growth, wellbeing, and success of essentially one-fifth of our county’s population who walk through our doors each day. Together, we seek to increase the rigor of education for our students, to make learning relevant to their goals and dreams, and to build productive learning relationships that encourage success. Rigor, relevancy, and relationships—three additional “Rs” of education.

Through a more challenging curriculum, expanded options for earning college credit while still in high school, and numerous innovative methods, we continue to increase the rigor of learning for our students. One recent development that assists this effort is our Academy for Advance Studies [AAS], a charter school program that works in conjunction with several colleges and universities to provide students multiple avenues for dual enrollment. Through the AAS, students are able to earn up to two years of college credit while still in high school. Students have the option of entering colleges such as the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, or similar prestigious schools with years of earned credit already under their belt, funded by the state through the HOPE scholarship program. At the AAS, students will also have access to programs such as engineering, logistics, and other career-oriented classes, many of which will allow earned college credit via course articulation with the technical college system of Georgia. These and other options help bridge learning from high school to college while increasing the rigor of coursework.

Relevancy in learning is built through a number of mechanisms, including project-based learning that helps students learn by doing rather than simply by studying. Work-based learning opportunities provide students on the job training, and numerous career-tech options. We understand, too, the reality that our children now live as digital natives in an increasingly technologically-oriented world. Given this understanding, we are expanding Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiatives that leverage student-owned technology as well as increasing virtual school learning opportunities. In 2012, we began an innovative virtual program that permits students to take a full schedule of on-line classes while remaining enrolled in their home school where they can participate in extracurricular activities, labs, and school events.

As we increase rigor and relevancy in learning, it is also important that we engage students, guiding them to their strengths and interests. This requires knowing them as individuals and building productive relationships with both them and their families. Many efforts are undertaken for this purpose, including mentoring programs and steps to guide students to extracurricular activities. We count on members of our community to also engage students in school. The nineteenth century clergyman Basil King said, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” One of those mighty forces is our community, whose members rise up time and again to support and encourage our students.

Are you a business owner? A parent? A member of our faith community? A leader in our county? Reach out and encourage a child. Support student learning through mentoring and tutoring. Read to a child today. Help each young person in Henry County understand the value of education, and guide them to life-long, independent learning. Every child must develop sound habits of thought, inquiry, and kindness. Our schools, our churches, our businesses, our families, our government—all are important members in this effort, and together, we are Henry!

Dr. Ethan Hildreth is Superintendent of Henry County Schools and has worked on behalf of the children and families of Henry County for 22 years. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and earned his Ph.D. from Georgia State University.

Dr. Hildreth was named in 1998 as STAR teacher for the Henry County school system, and has also served as a member of a Fulbright Memorial Fund delegation to Japan. He is the recipient of Georgia State Senate Resolution 649 and Georgia House of Representatives Resolution 1011 for educational excellence. As superintendent, Dr. Hildreth has been included in the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s list of Atlanta’s 100 Top Leaders in Education. In 2012, Henry County was awarded the CREATE Community Award for Educational Excellence by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Dr. Hildreth and his wife Crystal have been married for twenty-two years and are the parents of five children. The Hildreth family has resided in McDonough since 1991, and are proud to live and work in Henry County. For Dr. Hildreth, there is no greater privilege than being able to support, encourage, and guide others as they pursue their goals.