DULUTH - When Valerie Taylor was offered a teaching position in April, the Brookwood graduate was nervous about the job market.
Few of her peers at Georgia Southern University had found jobs for the upcoming school year, and budget woes were causing school districts throughout the state to implement hiring freezes or, worse, layoffs.
Taylor said she was glad to be offered a contract, especially by her alma mater.
"I felt very lucky ... to be exactly where I wanted to be," said Taylor, who will be teaching special education.
Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, welcomed 621 new hires, including Taylor, Friday during its annual New Teacher Orientation at the Gwinnett Center. Although the educators come from 17 states, the vast majority - 578 - are from Georgia.
Although the school district trimmed its operating expenses this year, GCPS was able to hire teachers because it's still a growing district. The pace of the growth has slowed - enrollment jumped by about 9,200 students in 2005-06 and 7,500 the following year - but an additional 1,744 students are expected this school year.
"Our size is not what's important," Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told the teachers during the orientation. "What's important is that there will be 159,000 students" walking through our doors on Aug. 10.
It will be up to the schools - and the teachers - to provide rigorous, challenging and engaging instruction and ensure those students are reaching their potential, Wilbanks said.
Becky Smith, a 25-year veteran who is joining the staff at Peachtree Ridge High School, said the start of the school year is always challenging.
"It doesn't matter if you're in your first year teaching or your 25th," she said. "There are always first-day jitters for the students and the staff."
Smith said she's excited about working here. She's previously worked in Towns, Lumpkin and Banks counties and most recently taught in Buford.
"I've always wanted to teach in Gwinnett," she said.
Some of Gwinnett's newest teachers are experienced in their fields but new to public education.
Ken Phelps, a retired Delta captain, is joining Maxwell High School of Technology as an instructor for the new aircraft flight operations program.
"I thought it'd be fun to share my passion for aviation with young people," he said.
Phelps has taught certified flight instruction, but this will be his first year in a high school classroom.
"I'm getting a lot of equipment now and getting the equipment set up and the room ready for the kids," he said. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun."