DALTON, Ga. -- As parents, students and teachers filled the courtyard that showcased the towering windows and grand hallways of the newly built middle school, 15-year-old Gage Moss stepped up to the microphone.
The ninth-grader from Dalton never will attend the $24 million dollar school where he spoke at a grand opening Monday, but he didn't mind too much. Two years ago, Gage wrote a letter to the editor in his local paper explaining how he and his peers at Eastbrook Middle School felt overlooked, neglected and left behind, but that this school was overflowing with potential.
Whitfield County Schools officials had built several new schools and spent millions renovating others, while the middle school on the south side of the county flooded each time it rained, roaches and rats scurried across the floor, and classrooms were heated with old radiators. Eastbrook Middle also has the highest number of students in poverty of any Whitfield County school, records show.
Parents also told school board members that more funding had been promised for Eastbrook years ago.
Gage was one student who helped convince Whitfield County Board of Education members that this pocket of the community believed it had been overlooked, Chairman Louis Fordham said.
"They believed they weren't as important as the other side of the community," Fordham said.
While many students spoke up, Gage was able to express the sentiment of most of the student body, said Principal Georgia Kopcsak.
The school board listened to the complaints and voted 3-2 to rebuild the school -- a decision that put the school district into more debt until a 1 cent sales tax passed this year.
This August, 655 middle school students enrolled at the new school, where natural light pours in through giant windows. The hallways are wide for students to work on projects and hang their artwork, and classroom walls break apart so teachers can work together. That design, space and interactive classrooms mean much to students who once felt overlooked, they said.
"We have more possibilities," said eighth-grader Tania Lopez.
"It makes me feel like I'm in a college," said Christian Antillon, who's also in eighth grade.
As for Gage, he said he and his peers feel inspired that they could make a difference.
"It inspired us to get back on our feet and try to help the next generation," he said. "That's what it was all about for us, getting up and fighting for what we believe in."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.