LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- From brick-and-mortar construction to data and academics, state officials left impressed by the growth at schools in Walker and Catoosa counties.
State Schools Superintendent John Barge visited Ringgold Middle and High schools along with LaFayette High School on Tuesday. Georgia first lady Sandra Deal accompanied Barge on the trip, one of dozens of school visits by the superintendent.
Walker County was chosen for a visit because of its recent academic gains, while Catoosa County was highlighted for its quick efforts to rebuild following the April 27 tornado that plowed through Ringgold schools.
At LaFayette High, Barge and the first lady visited classrooms and ate lunch in the cafeteria, stopping to chat with teachers and students. The two were surrounded by an entourage of handlers and school officials as they made their way through the school.
Barge said such trips are meant to show support to teachers and school workers.
"We just want to get out and celebrate all the good things that are going on in our schools," he said. "So many times, if you just stay in our office in Atlanta, folks on the ground don't know that you support them."
The Georgia Department of Education tries to make visits to all geographic areas of the state, Barge said, but the trips also highlight the good work and progress being made across the state.
"Walker County has made incredible strides in its education system in the past two decades," he said. "The growth here is phenomenal."
Deal, a retired teacher, said she's inspired anytime she can get back into classrooms.
"There's an aliveness about students that energizes all of us," she said.
She was impressed by LaFayette's Junior ROTC program and abundant Advanced Placement courses as well as the school's widespread use of technology.
In Catoosa County, Deal said she was awed by the resolve of staff and students following the April tornado. The fresh paint and new construction were inspiring, she said, considering the rapid rebuilding process. Catoosa County officials made repairs to the two buildings within four months of their destruction so they could open school in early September.
"It was nice to smell the newness of the school," Deal said. "They really have risen up from the tragedy of the tornado."
Walker County Superintendent Melissa Mathis said she was honored to be able to "talk shop" with the state superintendent. Walker schools have made improvements in state assessment scores and the graduation rate, which has increased about 20 percent in the last six years.
"I do believe we have reformed schools in many ways," she said. "Each and every aspect of our programs have shown improvement, through data and through testimony."
Mathis said the district has made the changes, both subtle and profound, in teaching and curriculum.
"It's very apparent," she said. "We have a different world."