Dawson County: Partnership For Learning

Dawson County is a land of contradictions and extremes, according to one of its leaders.

“We have a real dichotomy of folks,” says Dawson County Commission Chairman Mike Berg. “When you look at the retirees and the wealthy versus the folks that are living on a small income, there’s a lot of separation there.”

In addition, Dawson County is one of the fastest growing small counties in America, looking at an estimated growth rate of 30 percent for the period of 2005-2010. Such numbers naturally attract retailers.

“A new Super Wal-Mart recently opened and there is interest from other retailers along the [Highway] 400 corridor,” Berg says. “And that is opening up new job opportunities for those with high school and equivalency diplomas.”

But that segment of the population was shrinking due to an abysmal dropout rate. Only 67 percent of Dawson County’s high school students get their diplomas, with the rest failing to graduate. For Berg and other community leaders, getting dropouts back in the classroom became a point of community pride, as well as an economic necessity.

One problem had to do with space, specifically the classroom used for General Education Development (GED) classes, which was located in a 1,140-square-foot, pre-World War II house. This made for tight quarters for the 83 students who took GED courses there in 2001.

But when local adult literacy groups began a more intense promotion of the value of a GED certificate, 2005 enrollment soared to 339 and the need for a new facility became immediate. The first steps were stymied by the county’s wealth. Dawson County was branded by its status as a Tier Four county, a designation Georgia gives to the richest of its 159 counties.

“Yet, while we’ve got a lot of wealth, a lot of retirees, a mountain community with a vibrant business area, we also have a lot of folks who are not on that level, and to be able to help them is difficult with the Tier Four rating,” Berg says.

After several years of applying for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to help finance a new learning center to promote adult literacy, Dawson County finally hit pay dirt last fall when Berg was notified his community would receive a $500,000 grant from the Department of Community Affairs. “We got the cardboard check, but we’re still a long way from completion,” he says. “It is unusual for a Tier Four county to get a grant like this.”

Berg points to the formation of a partnership as the key to a successful grant application that will help fund an adult learning center of nearly 4,000 square feet set to open in September 2008. Collaborators include the Dawson County and city of Dawsonville governments, the Dawson County Board of Education, Lanier Technical College and its foundation, the Reading Education Association of Dawson County, Inc. (READ) and the Dawson County Builders Association, Inc.

The local school board donated land for the facility, the county will provide paving and permits and Lanier Tech will chip in with computers, desks and other equipment, and will absorb operational and maintenance costs, as well as furnish a few instructors.

The local builders association took care of necessary demolition work on the present site. An anonymous donor, moved by the collective support for a new learning center, gave $250,000, a sum that allows for a larger building with a wing to connect with Lanier Tech’s local campus. With cash contributions from the partners, the total project cost nearly doubled to almost $1 million.

“There will be few operating expenses at the new learning center,” says Daniel Goode, senior accountant in the Dawson County Finance Department, which is handling some financial management for the project. “Our department has the personnel and financial system to meet the needs of the reporting requirements for the CDBG, for instance.”

There are pleasant unintended consequences of the accelerated demand for GED certificates in Dawson County. A growing number of students are staying on at the county’s Lanier Tech satellite campus to further their education – a good sign.

“This does a world of good for us in job development,” Berg says. “Businesses around us are always looking for employees, and in a Tier Four [wealthier] county it is extremely difficult to sometimes get the workers we need. We think our new adult learning center will go a long way toward providing more of those workers and perhaps even stimulate participants to get more education.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features