Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Sheri Long listens during new teacher orientation on Monday afternoon. Long will be an 11th-grade language arts teacher at Duluth High School.
SUWANEE -- Speaking to a packed house of newly hired educators Monday morning, Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks assured them they are among Georgia's teaching elite.
"We look for the very best people we can find," said Wilbanks, his voice booming out across Peachtree Ridge High School's Auditorium. "I think our human resources department and principals have done a great job in selecting you."
Wilbanks said the 534 teachers hired to teach beginning Aug. 8 will "join an elite core of educators doing a very good job educating students at a high level."
The annual new teacher orientation ceremony Monday included speeches by Wilbanks as well as area superintendents and many others to welcome the new employees to Gwinnett County Public Schools.
Lauren Pulley, a newly xhired Lanier Middle special education teacher, was among them.
"You didn't feel like you were alone," Pulley said. "It felt like such a supportive network when you looked around and saw several hundred other new teachers."
Added Pulley: "It felt good that the county was willing to take the time to bring all of us together. It was encouraging."
Area Superintendent Calvin Watts encouraged the group, reassuring them of their abilities.
"You are in (this auditorium) because you are the best," Watts said. "Gwinnett hires no one but the best."
While the group of hundreds left no seat empty, numbers have steadily declined for the yearly teacher welcome event, Wilbanks said.
"The economy has been cruel to us in many ways. It obviously has been cruel to our profession," said Wilbanks, adding that the new teacher orientation has in the past inducted close to 1,500 educators in one ceremony.
"Obviously, that's not the case for the past few years. "(However), we are still a growing district."
Wilbanks told the group that GCPS is the 14th-largest school district in the country with more than 162,000 students.
In the classroom, Wilbanks said, "teachers must look for world-class benchmarks that will ensure our students are not just highly educated, but are competitive nationally and internationally."
Steven Griffith, a teacher at Hooper Renwick, enjoyed Wilbanks' speech.
"He challenged us to continue doing the job the system has been doing ... he encouraged us to raise the bar even higher," Renwick said.
As of last week, the district planned to hire 541 teachers, with 278 being new hires, 199 part-year hires and 64 retiree rehires.
Part-year hires are those who started last year after the first day of school.
School officials have said the new hires were necessary to accommodate growth and to fill positions vacated through attrition.
During Monday morning's orientation, Watts told teachers that their significance in students' lives could not be understated.
"You are the key," Watts said. "You are here to unlock the potential of every student you serve."