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Gainesville, GA News Feed

Gainesville Middle offers a different kind of summer school

In one classroom at Gainesville Middle School last week, eighth-graders were working with a choreographer from the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, perfecting dance moves for a video the students were creating.

Down the hall, rising sixth-graders were making boats of different shapes and discovering which shape could hold the most pennies. Meanwhile, seventh-graders in another room were trying to figure out how characters they had created could escape a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

It’s all part of a new approach to the traditional remedial programs of summer school.

The program called SOAR, for Skills, Organization, Academics and Role models, offers creative ways to learn and helps students get used to expectations in their new grade level.

“Instead of being summer school, where there’s just rigor, rigor, rigor, rigor, we are more relaxed; we can have conversations,” said Ashley Grubbs Weber, a seventh-grade teacher. “They’re more open about what they want to learn and what they have trouble with. Some of them they get straight A’s and they don’t have any trouble. Their parents wanted them to come and make sure they knew what was coming up for the next year.

“For the teachers, we get to know the kids, so when they come to us so next year, they know us and we know them,” she added. “The connection, the bond, makes it really easy and these kids will become the leaders for next year to help others.”

More than 100 students participated in the first year of SOAR, according to Courtney Hagans, an eighth-grade teacher. The two-week program will finish up this week with a new group of students.

“Originally, our plan was to target the kids that were struggling, but because it’s a new program, we opened it to everyone to see how it would go” Hagans said. “It’s actually going really well. The kids who are here wanted to be here. It’s a mixture of ability groups. It’s not based on their academic levels at all.”

Hagans added that teachers had autonomy to choose how they were going to teach the students in their grade level.

In sixth grade, teachers focused on creative ways to teach students new skills as well as help them get more comfortable with the dramatic change from elementary to middle school.

Science teachers Dominic Sabatino and Paul Sparks gave the students pieces of aluminum foil and asked them to construct a boat in different shapes and put pennies in each boat. The objective was for the students to determine which shape could hold the most weight.

“You’ve got to make the kids engage,” Sparks said of the experiment. “You’ve got to give the kids intrinsic motivation.”

The sixth-graders also investigated a mystery with the scenario that Principal Rose Prejean-Harris had been kidnapped. They were asked to figure out who did it, while following clues around the building.

“We have staged some crime scenes around the building, so we’re going to explore the building so they can feel comfortable with our walls and our hallways, and they’re going to find out who did it,” Shannon McGonigal, a sixth-grade teacher. “Our sixth graders are loving it. They came in the building and some of them were very scared. Now they’re going home and they’re telling their parents, ‘I’m not scared anymore; this is going to be great.’ We want them to know that middle school is fun. We want to make sure their transition from elementary school is as smooth as possible.”

Taylor Nixon, who is entering middle school from Enota, said middle school is “a huge change” from elementary school.

“I came so I would be able to be prepared for middle school,” she said. “We practiced changing classrooms, we have learned how to open our lockers and we’ve learned some stuff about teachers. It’s helped us a lot. I guess it’s scary because it’s such a big school. I’m scared I’m going to get lost.”

Seventh and eighth-grade teachers gave the students a preview of materials that would be a focus of their new grade level in the fall..

In seventh grade, Weber was teaching writing skills with students writing stories about the Holocaust and 9/11. The students were also working on math, character development and organizational skills.

“The really neat thing about this program is No. 1, I get to know new students coming up next year; they’re comfortable with us and they already know what’s going on,” Weber said. “No. 2, I really get to work with them on their weaknesses from the previous year. We are teaching skills so that when they come up to seventh grade, they have that background knowledge and they have those prerequisites to help them be successful so they won’t be so far behind.”

Karla Cruz, a rising seventh-grader, was writing a story about a character trying to escape a concentration camp during the Holocaust. She said the program is helping her get ready for the new school year.

“I wanted to see the teachers and feel comfortable for next year,” she said.”I’m kind of nervous and scared about next year. I think it may be harder.”

The eighth-graders wrote words and created a dance they performed based on what they were learning about how to write a constructive response, something that will be on the Milestones end of grade test. Laurin Dunleavy, Hagans’ college roommate at Brenau University and a teaching artist at the Woodruff Arts Center, helped the students with their dance moves. The students later turned the dance into a music video.

“What I love doing with the students is kind of helping them realize their potential with dance and their creativity,” Dunleavy said. “My goal is to help them decide movements that maybe they didn’t think were inside of them and give them more options for where they could do it in a space. There’s not just one way to do dance; it’s whatever they decide is the right way.”

Eighth-grader India Borders said she has enjoyed the program.

“The best part learning is how to do the dance moves and getting a little extra learning before school starts,” she said. “I signed up because I thought it would be fun and I would have something to do during the summer. The extra learning that we get now is helpful for the next school year.” 

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Low Lanier water levels are sidelining home sellers

The Spiron family bought their home on Lake Lanier to do some fishing — and the house is their bait.

After a career working for Home Depot, Doug Spiron is now remotely running an Ohio-based software company and a Nashville talent agency. The Atlanta entrepreneur and his wife, Corena Spiron, are moving into his lake house off of Dawsonville Highway after selling their primary residence in Milton and a beach home in Florida.

With their two children grown and out of the house, the Spirons wanted to ensure they had a place where the rest of the family would keep coming back.

“Most of all (we) wanted a place to entertain,” Spiron said. “Beach houses are a real destination from a family standpoint. We wanted to repeat that here, but it also needed to double as our everyday residence.”

They started looking for a new house last year, found their house near Jerry Jackson Bridge in April and are now moving in. Spiron said they looked at “very few” houses and didn’t have to compromise in their search.

The house has a two-slip dock, deep water, a pool and plenty of room.

Many others won’t be as lucky this year.

“There are a lot of buyers out there right now,” said Teresa Smith, the Keller-Williams real estate agent who found the Spirons their house. But at the same time, 2017 “has been the year that we have seen the least amount of inventory come on the market than we have in the past years.”

June is Hall County’s busiest month for home sales, but as property values continue to rise, many lake dwellers looking to sell are holding off, waiting for a higher lake level — and a higher selling price.

Some homes are drought-proof, meaning that they have water deep enough to never worry about their dock grounding. These are going for a premium.

“There was one that I appraised, it was a small cottage, probably 1,200 square feet with a basement that was finished,” said appraiser and Lake Lanier expert Mary Thompson, owner of Lake Appraisal Service. “It was on a point lot, beautiful lot. Small little house, point lot and 700 feet of corps line — purchased for $900,000.”

But for the majority of the homes around the lake, those in the $300,000 to $600,000 range, the few feet of water between where it sits now and full pool can make a big difference.

In June 2016, 49 homes were sold around the lake, which sat at 1,069 feet — almost 5 feet higher than it is now.

The lake’s pool isn’t the end-all when it comes to selling a house on Lake Lanier, but, like a fresh coat of paint or new flooring, it helps move a house and move it for more.

When they don’t have the lake lapping at the floats of their dock, people tend to get nervous about prices and hesitate putting their home on the market. That’s one reason agents are dealing with tight inventory at the moment.

“A lot of times people will sell property before they come on the market,” Smith said. “There’s a group of lake agents up here that if we have something good coming on the market, we’ll let each other know because we all know we have buyers and we can’t seem to find anything for them.”

People are right to wait, said Thompson, given the effect views and water can have on asking prices. If they’re not in a rush to sell, they can — and many are — waiting until the lake comes back up.

“The bottom line is the lake site is the driving force — lake site first, house second,” she said. “Realtors will tell me — and I believe it to be true — is that a lot of times they’ll pull up to the house, they’ll go walk the lake first and if they don’t like what they’ll see, they won’t even go into the house.”

With the lake recently climbing from 10 feet below full pool to about 6 feet, Thompson said she’s seeing more business as people become more optimistic about selling their homes.

They’re more optimistic this year, but property owners are also more optimistic in the long term after what has been for many a dreadful decade.

Mid-priced homes on the lake lost about 30 percent of their value after the housing bubble burst, Thompson said, but those at the high end — the mansions and the country club homes in the high six figures or low sevens — had their property values halved or more during the recession.

In 2017, they’re finally catching up to the peak of 2006, she said.

But summer is here, and the lake likely will to drop about 6 feet before season’s end based on water demands, heat and rainfall, and the level will take some home’s asking prices down with it.

Between now and then, it will be a good time for buyers looking for a deal — if they can find one.

“As far as a buyer goes right now, now is a great time to look,” Smith said. “If a dock has water — we’re only down about 6 feet — but if you’ve got nice, good water right now you should always have good water.”

But even if a house doesn’t have as much water as a buyer would prefer at the moment, it might still be something to think about.

“If anybody is well educated ... about the lake, they know and understand that we fluctuate up and down,” Thompson said. “If they don’t want to pay the high dollar for the drought-proof, deep-water lake lots then they don’t shy away as much from those kinds of properties.

“I would say if they’re getting it for the right price, especially if the seller is (willing to discount), it might be a smart move because it always comes back. There’s only been a few times when it’s been pretty devastating for one or two seasons.”

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Road Atlanta remembers beloved ‘Turn 7 Girl’

BRASELTON — With a mixture of tears and laughter, the Road Atlanta racing family remembered their “Turn 7 Girl,” Hazel Harrell, in a memorial service Saturday at the same location where Harrell died in an accident three weeks ago.

Harrell, 60, of Gainesville died June 3 when she was attempting to cross the track at Turn 7 to help an injured motorcyclist during an event she was working for the Western Eastern Racing Association’s Motorcycle Roadracing.

Harrell was struck by a another rider in the competition. She had worked events at Road Atlanta for about 20 years and was known for her work at the track’s Turn 7.

More than 300 people attended the service and watched as Harrell’s son, James, and daughter, DeeDee Harrell Shelton, spread a portion of their mother’s ashes on the grass next to the track at Turn 7.

“It was her wish; she wanted some of (the ashes) left here at her second home,” Shelton said. “We spread some on the grass, so she’ll always be here. It’s amazing how many people she touched from all over the place. I’ve never seen anything this big before.”

James Harrell said he was not surprised by the crowd.

“I’m not going to lie to you; I was actually expecting this many people here,” he said. “It is very overwhelming. It means the world to me and my sister to know that Mama touched, not just us and our family, but basically everybody you see here, she’s had something to do with them at one point or another.”

He was on Facebook Live during the service providing video for those who could not get to Road Atlanta on Saturday.

“All of her other workers and riders were somewhere else; they could not be here,” Harrell said. “That was the easiest way for everybody to be here because everybody wanted to be here. She spent more time with everybody that is here than she did with me and my sister. We are her blood family, but this is her family also. I wouldn’t have left no one out at all.”

A stone marker was set up as a permanent memorial to Harrell at Turn 7 and most of the attendees Saturday were wearing a green sticker that said “Turn 7 Girl.”

Many of those at the service wore purple shirts, hats or ribbons — Hazel’s favorite color — in her memory. People were also writing messages on purple helium balloons and then letting them go into the sky.

“She loved purple,” said her friend and coworker, Sandy Lewis, who was with Harrell on Turn 7 June 3. “She was one loved lady. It has been tough. It has taken three of us do her job.”

Lewis let her balloon go about a half hour before the service started.

“I wrote on the balloon that Hazel was my co-worker and my friend and I miss her and I love her,” Lewis said.

Gary Cummings, Road Atlanta manager for event operations, facilities and maintenance, was not at the service, but gave written words to Ken Grogan, head of security at the track, to read on his behalf.

“There are those who run from danger and there are those who run to danger,” Cummings wrote. “Hazel was running to try to protect a life when she lost hers. Her ultimate sacrifice through this tragic accident shows us how she lived her life.”

Her granddaughter, Shelby Pizano, called the woman she knew as Nana, “one of the strongest, most independent woman I have known.”

“You helped our family stay together,” she said. “You were like the glue that held us together.”

Another granddaughter, Shayla Harrell, remembered her smile.

“Nana is always with us; no matter where we are, our Turn 7 Girl will always be with us,” she said. “She was always there to cheer us up with that big bright smile of hers. I swear that smile lit up the whole world. She was nice, but don’t get me wrong, she could snap on you in a heartbeat.”

Tony Pentecost, a race chaplain for 25 years, admitted the service was difficult for him.

“I would rather be anywhere than Road Atlanta today,” he told the crowd. “But, I know where she is today. She is in heaven.”

He remembered Harrell as a unique person who had a “raceroom” that contained all things related to the sport.

“She’s been putting stuff in that room for years,” Pentecost said. “If it involved racing, it was in that room.”

He encouraged those at the service to remember and celebrate their friend.

“I’ve seen some faces that look really somber,” Pentecost said. “Today is a day for tears; today is a day for laughter. Share tears, laugh laughs, share memories. That’s what we have left. We are all Hazel’s, friends — better word,  family. Hazel loved this place, but she loved us more.”

He challenged the group to find someone after the service they didn’t know and share a memory of Hazel Harrell.

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The Times' Rogers earns 6 photo awards in AP contest

The Times earned two first-place awards and 11 overall in the annual Associated Press Media Editors contest for newspapers in Georgia.

The winners were announced Saturday at an awards luncheon in Atlanta.

The Times competed in Division I with the state’s largest metro daily newspapers.

Staff photographer Scott Rogers earned six awards overall, including first place for best picture story for his photos of the annual Gut Check leadership program by the Gainesville Jaycees.

Rogers also earned second-place awards for picture story and for best feature photo, and second and third place for best photo illustration. He earned third place for best overall portfolio.

The Times also won first for editorial writing, the winning effort “Broken lives count” on efforts to start homes for victims of addiction and the sex trade.

Staff reporter Nick Watson and former staff members Joshua Silavent and Frank Reddy earned second place in public service for their series on affordable housing in Hall County.

Staff writer Jeff Gill earned second place for feature writing with his story on a World War II soldier remembered by his quadruplet children.

Marcus Rodrigue earned second-place honors for sports writing with his story on pro baseball player Ralston Cash helping families touched by cancer at Christmas.

Former staff photographer Erin O. Smith earned a third-place award for best sports feature photo.

“Recognition by peers in the industry is always nice and serves as an indication we are doing our jobs the right way,” Times General Manager Norman Baggs said. “We are convinced we have the best and most credible news gathering team in North Georgia, and these awards lend credence to that belief.”

Twenty-two print and broadcast organizations submitted 495 entries in the contest. 




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Society in Tiger works to preserve indigo snake in North Ga. mountains

There’s a den of snakes in Tiger, and all the South should be happy about it.

North Georgia’s Orianne Society is dedicated to the conservation of reptiles, amphibians and their habitat in the South and the nation, working to preserve a rich natural history of the region’s less-loved but no less important creatures.

Among them is the eastern indigo snake, the largest snake in North America and a threatened species throughout its range, now mostly limited to southeastern Georgia and Florida.

Through a combination of working with landowners, habitat restoration and reintroduction, the society is hoping to create sustainable populations of the animals in northern Florida and southern Alabama and Mississippi, areas where it’s functionally extinct.

Eastern indigos live for about 12 years in the wild. The black snakes with burnt orange faces are unique to the American South and can travel large areas in the summer in their search for food.

In the winter, they group together in the burrows of the gopher tortoise to survive the cold. To save the eastern indigo, The Orianne Society, the largest reptile conservation organization in the United States and a global leader in the work, is trying to preserve the tortoise.

That work happens in the field, the longleaf pine forests and sandhills of the Deep South and the Eastern Seaboard, but is headquartered in an unsuspecting white house on Old Fruit Stand Lane in the little Rabun County community of Tiger.

Visitors to the wooden home are met with the slap of loose screen doors, the tired creak of wooden floors and the angry shake of rattlesnakes. There are eastern diamondbacks, canebrakes and pygmy rattlesnakes, venomous critters native to the South, sitting in their enclosures against the walls of the main room. And they’re loud.

Elsewhere in the building are the odd copperhead, king snakes, corn snakes and tortoises.

They sit right outside, and in the case of the copperhead, inside the office of Chris Jenkins, CEO and founder of The Orianne Society, who leads the 14-member organization working to preserve the eastern indigo snake in the South.

“We don’t do advocacy, lobbying, litigation, any of that,” Jenkins said in early June. “We do boots-on-the-ground, get-your-hands-dirty type of conservation.”

Usually that means starting fires.

In the pre-European South, wildfires were routine in the brush underneath the tall pines — so routine that the pines themselves are fire resistant, according to the Alabama-based Longleaf Alliance, another group dedicated to preserving the unique habitat.

With homes, roads and other infrastructure in place, residents of the South are less interested in letting fires sweep through their backyards and across interstates. Jenkins and his employees use “prescribed fires” to get “the most bang for the buck” in specific areas to restore longleaf pine forests by clearing underbrush and consuming non-pine trees.

“Really what we’re doing is managing that habitat for gopher tortoises,” Jenkins said. “We’re improving the habitat; we’re trying to turn as much as that habitat back to what it was pre-European.”

That looks like savannah: open grasslands on sand with a low density of large pine trees. Gopher tortoises survive on the grass and use the nutrient-poor soil to dig their burrows.

“The place that the snakes need – they absolutely need these tortoise burrows or they cannot survive in Georgia — those animals are declining and becoming more rare in their own right,” Jenkins said.

Habitat restoration for the tortoise and work for the indigo snake are happening side-by-side. Through a center in Florida, the society is hatching indigo snakes for reintroduction in restored habitats in Alabama and Mississippi. More than 100 snakes have been released in the past eight years.

There are between 40 and 70 snakes in captivity depending on when eggs are hatching and when the snakes are being released back into the wild.

For now, the snakes are concentrated in the peninsula of Florida and in southern Georgia.

“You could draw a line south of I-16 and east of I-75,” Jenkins said of southeast Georgia, “and the majority of the remaining indigo snakes in Georgia are within that southeastern block.”

Through reintroduction and habitat restoration, the society is hoping to push their range back across Georgia, through Alabama and into western Mississippi.

They’re spending so much time on the two species because of how they affect the rest of the food chain in the South.

Tortoises create shelter critical to a huge number of other animals. About 350 other species, from owls to snakes, use the burrows throughout the year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And Jenkins said the indigo snake acts as an “umbrella species” because of its tendency to cover large distances.

Because other snakes make up half of its diet — eastern indigos eat anything from other indigo snakes, copperheads and eastern diamondbacks — the animal is a “predator of predators,” he said. They’re at the top of the food chain, and to stay there they have to cover a huge area, sometimes up to 3,000 acres.

“Just imagine a tiger in India. A mouse in India is going to have a relatively small home range,” Jenkins said. “Tigers, you can imagine, are covering hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of square miles.”

That travel moves them through different kinds of habitat and eating different kinds of prey. A traveler that high on the food chain has plenty of opportunities to be killed. If they’re still around, it means the environment is in relatively good shape.

“Because indigo snakes use such big areas, because they use different types of habitats – they use these sandhills and then they leave the sandhills and they go into the swamps — so to adequately protect and indigo snake you need to protect its prey resources. You need to protect relatively large areas and you need to protect different types of habitat,” Jenkins said. “If you can effectively do that using this umbrella concept, you’re just going to protect a lot of other things.”

Beyond habitat destruction, many of the snakes are simply being killed by people — gassed in burrows by hunters looking for rattlesnakes, run over by cars or met in the backyard with a shovel.

Indigo snakes, as with all snakes, are an important part of the Southern ecosystem, and eat many of the nuisance animals people hate.

“You wouldn’t go out in your backyard and shoot every songbird that you see. People have this innate fear of snakes, but if you see a snake in your backyard it’s no different than that songbird. It’s just another animal,” Jenkins said, adding that “indigo snakes are snake predators. (They) eat venomous snakes; they eat copperheads; they eat diamondbacks. They eat all types of snakes. Oftentimes people are more concerned about venomous snakes ... that is one value that oftentimes people put on indigo snakes.”

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