Bartow County’s three new magnet coordinators may come from different educational backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common – helping students who are passionate about a specific field succeed at the most rigorous level possible.
Beth Payton, Emily Thompson and Eric Willoughby were approved July 15 by the Bartow County School Board to head up the new Center for Advanced Studies in Science, Technology and Math at Adairsville High, Center for Advanced International Studies at Cass High and Center for Advanced Studies in Medical Science at Woodland High, respectively, and have spent the past few months crafting programs that will challenge their students and give them an edge when applying to the top colleges in the country and a leg up on potential career choices.
“Magnet programs bring opportunity for students to delve into a specific subject area with great detail,” Thompson, who formerly taught Spanish at CHS, said. “They are challenged with a specialized curriculum that allows them to learn in-depth material in an area that interests them; they can focus their education on a specific subject. In my opinion, magnet programs are an excellent way to challenge high-level learners and create a venue for them to make themselves more competitive among their peers. They graduate from the program with a unique and valid experience that not many others do, and they are culturally aware, socially responsible and highly educated individuals that will go into the world and make a positive impact on society.”
Taking rigorous classes tailored to their specific interests often will help high-performing students who lack direction or opportunity find their niche, said Payton, a former science teacher at AHS.
“Colleges are looking for, and asking more often, if students have been a part of magnet programs because it shows that they have been exposed and dedicated to a particular area of study for a sustainable length of time,” she said. “These students are less likely to change majors or drop out upon entering college with the level of rigor and depth of exposure they have already been able to experience. In short, [magnets] are important because they better prepare students for their future and help them to stand out in very competitive situations such as college acceptance and the job market.”
Willoughby, WHS’s former band director, said the magnet programs will offer students “unique opportunities for study,” such as Woodland’s partnership with Cartersville Medical Center, that they couldn’t get in a regular high school setting.
“Through this partnership, Woodland students will get to observe medical procedures and participate in internships within the hospital,” he said, noting students also get to spend a “great deal of time” with others who share their passions and love of learning. “These magnet programs take our school system to a new level of opportunity and achievement.”
The three coordinators agree that building a magnet program from scratch is “certainly not a one-man show,” as Payton put it, and has required a lot of help from the central office, high school principals, other teachers, counselors, students and a host of community sources like the College Board and Department of Education to determine the best focus areas.
“Initially it felt like I was wandering around in the dark, not really sure what to do and how to start,” Thompson said. “Thankfully, Beth and Eric were in the same boat with me, and the three of us banded together and began to slowly figure things out.”
“As soon as we were aware of our particular magnet, we put all hands on deck and went to work,” Payton said. “We spoke with deans and professors of multiple colleges and universities to get feedback on which classes and content areas would best prepare students for these next steps. We spoke to many industries and businesses to find out which skills would be most valuable upon completing their college education. And we sought after meaningful partnerships that would foster those learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Thompson said the coordinators sought guidance from other magnet programs and coordinators, particularly North Cobb High School in Kennesaw.
“We looked at other magnet programs that had success and began to structure our program off of the same backbones that those programs did,” she said, noting James Auld at NCHS was “a big help to all of us but especially to me, as he and I share a program theme of international studies.”
Spending an entire day at NCHS “really helped me start to shape our program and understand what a strong magnet school looks like,” Thompson said.
“Ultimately, once I began to understand what the structure of a magnet program looked like, I tried to involve as many minds as I could in helping me build ours,” she said. “I knew that I wouldn't be able to do it alone.”
Willoughby believes “anything worth doing requires great planning and intentionality,” and the school system’s magnet emphasis is “no different.”
“Fortunately, a great team of leaders within the school system came together in several meetings at the beginning of the school year to lay the foundation for this program,” he said.
A number of factors went into determining what classes needed to be offered and in what sequence, including graduation requirements, Advanced Placement course offerings and the skill set of the current teachers.
The coordinators also had to bring in very specialized classes in each field, like robotics, computer programming, engineering technology and application, app development, gaming, zoology, botany, oceanography, entomology, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, microbiology, epidemiology, veterinary science, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, biotechnology and animal science.
“The best way to determine what classes need to be offered is to seek the advice of professionals within the community,” Willoughby said. “In addition to the core curriculum dictated by the state, students will have opportunities to investigate different fields of study through the magnet programs. At Woodland, medical professionals and college admissions counselors were consulted; college admission requirements were considered; and other medical science magnet programs were researched.”
After she “bounced ideas” off many different people, Thompson said she “revamped my sequencing many times.”
“I am grateful that I had many people involved in the process so that our courses were fully vetted,” she said.
As for securing teachers to instruct the specialized classes, the coordinators agree that Bartow County already employs a number of teachers who can handle many of the courses, but some will have to be hired as specific needs arise in the future.
“This is where the genius of ‘and’ comes into play,” Payton said. “We have phenomenal teachers right now that are excited to teach some of the specialized courses in which they share those particular interests with the students. But we expect that as the programs expand and more students are seeking specialized courses in STEM fields that we will add to our staff as these needs arise. So we will be utilizing the expertise of our current teachers, and we will be looking to fulfill particular needs in the future with new hires.”
For instance, CHS currently doesn't have any teachers on staff who are certified to teach French, Arabic or Mandarin Chinese, Thompson said.
“Thus, we will need to hire new teachers to teach these courses,” she said. “Overall, though, we don't foresee having to add many teachers to our staff.”
Each coordinator had different reasons for wanting to take on a new role at his or her school.
Willoughby’s desire sprang from a positive experience he had when the first high school he taught at, Wheeler High School in Marietta, opened a magnet program in 2000.
“Additionally, I have been growing in my interest to lead in different ways within our school system,” he said. “When the magnet program coordinator position was made public, I was immediately attracted to the opportunity. I love the idea of being able to build this program from scratch and, through witnessing the positive impact at Wheeler High School, I knew this could benefit our students, school and community.”
And it didn’t hurt that he wouldn’t have to leave the school he loves to take on a new challenge, he said.
“Once it was announced in late June that the position was approved by the board, I knew that I wanted to pursue the job,” he said.
Willoughby said he thinks having the privilege of teaching several valedictorians, salutatorians and STAR students as well as an AP course for many years have “best prepared me for this position.”
“Teaching and leading the highest academically achieving students in the building has given me insight on how to build and manage a program that will be populated by the most talented and brightest students in Bartow County,” he said.
Thompson said after talking with system leaders about the newly created position, she realized she could further her passion to make a difference and be a positive force in her students’ lives “on a much larger scale moving forward” if she became the magnet coordinator.
And since Cass is the international studies magnet, the position also would allow the former Spanish teacher to fuel another passion – world languages and language acquisition.
“I was excited that this position would give me a chance to mold our world language program and open doors for students to different cultures and languages that have never been experienced here in Bartow County,” she said. “This also meant being able to plan international trips for students, which has been a strong passion of mine ever since I got to do it myself in high school and college. I know what a difference study abroad can make, and I really wanted to be able to offer this same experience to Cass High students.”
And perhaps the cherry on top is the position will give her more time with her family “as I'm not grading and lesson planning when I'm at home,” Thompson said.
“I am able to be fully focused on my work while at work and fully focused on my family while at home, and I needed that change,” she said.
Thompson said she “began to ponder long and hard about applying” for the job after it officially opened, and having questions answered by WHS Principal David Stephenson, a former international studies coordinator at NCHS, she “discovered that I could still make a strong impact on students even if I'm out of the classroom.”
“This was a huge reason that I decided to apply for the position, and, although I miss the classroom every day, I am glad that I took that step of faith,” she said. “I love the classroom and didn't want to leave it if I didn't feel that I could still impact kids positively. I didn't know much about what I would be doing and initially was frightened by the change. However, I felt that God was opening doors and opportunities for me that I couldn't pass up, and I felt him encouraging me to be brave and take the first step into the unknown.”
She also believes her experience as classroom teacher is “going to be a super-helpful tool” in working with both magnet students and teachers since she can relate to both groups.
Payton said she wanted to head up AHS’s program because magnets are “fantastic for appealing to student interests and elevating student engagement and rigor.”
“Those things are music to any teacher’s ears, and I definitely wanted to have a hands-on part in the process,” she said. “Having the Center for Advanced Studies in Science, Technology and Math housed here at Adairsville High School made the decision even easier, as my background is in marine science, and I was currently teaching at AHS when the position was created.”
Payton said she “didn’t think twice” about applying for the job.
“During my career, several positions have come open that have made me question if they were the right fit for me,” she said. “As soon as I was made aware of this one, the more I knew it was tailored toward my strengths, and I jumped at the opportunity before me.”
Now for a look at the three coordinators on a personal level.
Payton, 40, was born in Cartersville, graduated from the Bartow County School System and still lives in her hometown with her husband and 5-year-old son.
She began her college career at Brigham Young University-Hawaii but found it didn’t offer the program she needed after she decided to major in marine science.
She then transferred to Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, and completed her Bachelor of Science in marine science with a minor in Spanish.
“After I began teaching, I pursued graduate work and completed my master’s degree in education in curriculum and instruction from Grand Canyon University, followed by my educational specialist degree in leadership from Berry College,” she said.
The 2019-20 school year is Payton’s 16th year in education – 10 years teaching science at Red Top Middle School, formerly known as South Central Middle, and six years at AHS.
Thompson, a Gainesville native, graduated from Chestatee High School in Hall County and earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish with a minor in theater from the University of Georgia.
The Rydal resident, 31, began teaching in the private sector in 2010 then transitioned to public schools in 2014. She moved to CHS last year.
“This is my 10th year in education, and I owe every position I've held to Jesus,” she said. “I absolutely love what I do, and I'm so thankful that he has opened door after door to allow me to impact students and make a difference in my educational community. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.”
Thompson is married to Matt Thompson, the cybersecurity teacher at Cass, and they have a son, Reece, 2, and a second son due Feb. 3.
Willoughby, 47, grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and moved to Georgia in middle school.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in music education from The University of Southern Mississippi.
The former band director is celebrating his 25th year in education, with the last 11 years being at Woodland.
He lives in Euharlee with his wife, Rebecca, and their three children, Sarah, 21, and Stephen, 18, who both attend UGA, and Hannah, 12, a seventh-grader at Woodland Middle.