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District plans refugee center, charter school

LAWRENCEVILLE - Soon students who love physics, programming and proofs will have a high school to call their own. Gwinnett County Public Schools is planning to open a new charter school that will focus on science, mathematics and technology.

At the same time, the school system will implement a new international transition center to help those students who are immigrant refugees adjust to Gwinnett schools.

The new schools are part of the district's effort to cater to a variety of students through alternative education programs.

"We're so large in Gwinnett, we have so many students, that we would like to be able to make sure, that where we have students that want to concentrate in a particular area, that we have opportunities for those students," said Cindy Loe, associate superintendent for the Division of Organizational Advancement.

The new high school would offer a college preparatory curriculum, with a focus on teaching math, science and technology. Students would apply in eighth grade for admission to the school, based on their grades, projects, extracurricular activities and demonstrated interest in those subject areas.

Students will still have to take classes in English, foreign languages, science and social studies to fulfill the requirements for Georgia's college preparatory diploma.

The school system plans to accept 200 high school freshmen for the first year the charter school is open. More students will be accepted at the ninth-grade level each year, so eventually it will enroll between 1,000 and 1,200 students.

With American math and science test scores lagging behind many other countries, Gwinnett Board of Education member Carole Boyce hopes the new school will help improve instructional techniques in those key subject areas. She is looking forward to the prospect of having the school offer a new alternative for students in District I and the rest of Gwinnett County.

"It's tremendously exciting and we're just thrilled about the opportunity," Boyce said. "It's something we've been thinking about for a while. We're ready to move forward with it."

The international transition center will be especially designed to help those students who had extenuating circumstances in their home countries, preventing them from attending schools. Many of them will be refugees from war-torn regions, who may not be literate in any language.

International high school students would spend up to a semester adjusting to the American education system and learning basic English skills. They would be sent to the school from the International Newcomer Center, where all immigrant middle and high school students go to determine class placement and get an introduction to Gwinnett schools.

All of the teachers at the transition center would be certified to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages. They would also be teaching students the basics of schooling, such as switching classes when the bell rings and navigating the cafeteria lines.

"It would be very focused on: 'What do you need to know to get ready to enter a high school in Georgia and Gwinnett County specifically?' Because unfortunately, they haven't had the years in Gwinnett to prepare for that transition," Loe said.

At earliest, the international transition center and the charter high school will open in August 2007. They will both be located near the Maxwell High School of Technology and the Oakland Center in Lawrenceville.

There are already a variety of alternative schools in Gwinnett County, such as the Hooper-Renwick Center, the GIVE Centers and the Grayson High School Technical Program. The schools cater to students who either have special needs, behavior problems or who want to focus on a technical curriculum.

The new math, science and technology school, and the international center, would be the first of their kind in Gwinnett.

"What we are looking for is more options and more alternatives to provide so we are meeting the needs of every student in Gwinnett," Loe said.