When Bibb County schools start in about a week, many features may appear about the same, but theyre changing.
Some classes could have as many as 35 students, after staffing was slashed to help close an $18.7 million budget hole. Two high-profile innovations introduced last year -- the Welcome Center and elementary school Chinese classes -- have been cut back.
Students will return Aug. 5 to find a third person in the superintendents seat since February. And while Steve Smith vows to change many things about the district, former Superintendent Romain Dallemands Macon Miracle plan remains the districts strategic road map.
Smith doesnt call the plan the Macon Miracle, but he notes that large portions of it remain on track.
I refer to it as the strategic plan, and its still in place. It may be, I would say, 90 percent of the plan is the same content of most other school systems strategic plans, he said in a recent interview.
Portions of that plan call for low-controversy items, such as more training for teachers to use data to help their instruction. Yet because of the budget shortfall, teacher training days are getting cut back, and teachers may have larger classes that make it more difficult to teach.
Smith said feedback from listening sessions, an online survey and a report from the AdvancEd accreditation agency are prompting him to shift priorities around in the strategic plan.
My mission is going to be to do things like address the low morale in the school system, try to tighten up the discipline and respect for teachers, he said. Another area will be to try to get technology ... to do what its supposed to do, when we need it.
Separately, Smith said he plans to strengthen discipline, particularly by bringing back Leigh Brogdon Geeslin, an attorney who previously directed student disciplinary hearings.
I think we just need tighter discipline. I have not witnessed anything, but Ive been told there are things going on, said Smith, who started as interim superintendent after students were already out of school for the summer. I care more about those students in the classroom who are there to learn than the few that are there to disrupt.
Budget causes widespread problems
The school board has authorized Smith to hire as many as 20 teachers to deal with class sizes, as well as other changes made shortly before the final budget was approved earlier this month. An earlier budget document shows the systems budget was down about 84 positions, including 58.5 teachers.
Additionally, staff members also face furloughs and a loss of contracted days, which leaves less time for training and other purposes. The school board voted this month to delay the start of school until Aug. 5, which gives teachers another two days to get ready for the school year. The move also cut the systems school year down to 176 days of classes.
The system plans to use a class size waiver that allows classes to reach 28 students in kindergarten through third grade; 33 students in fourth through eighth grade; and 35 students in ninth through 12th grade.
Budget cuts also hit the Welcome Center, which Smith says needs to be retooled. The scheduled hours there now are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday. The final Saturday session will be Aug. 3 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Mandarin instruction getting reworked
Mandarin Chinese instruction will be eliminated at most Bibb County schools, but other schools will have even more instruction, said Jane Drennan, the deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.
Last years program put one Chinese teacher in each of 25 Bibb County schools, enough to teach at least two grade levels. That cost $400,000 plus transportation, which was cut entirely from Bibb Countys budget.
For the new school year, the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University has agreed to cover the cost of 14 teachers, who will cover seven schools, Drennan said.
We should be able to go pre-K through grade 5, Drennan said.
The seven elementary schools were selected in part on how much enthusiasm they had for the classes. The schools are Bernd, Brookdale, Burdell-Hunt, Heritage, Porter, Skyview and Taylor elementaries.
The word enthusiasm comes up often when Drennan talks about Chinese language instruction. While there isnt much research yet to show how much it was helping Bibb County students, Drennan considers the last year to be a success because of how it seemed to inspire students. Research from other places suggests that foreign language instruction can lead to improvements in all subjects.
The earlier you can start learning a language, the better you learn, she said.
Bibb County schools plan to evaluate what happens when entire schools get Chinese instruction, and officials hope to get credit for the classes on the states College and Career Ready Performance Index, which effectively gives schools grades. Drennan may look for grant money to try to expand the program.
She said it was unfortunate the school system cant offer Chinese classes in every school. Success could influence the scale of the program.
If we can demonstrate that this is something thats working for six or seven schools, thats something to hang our hat on, she said.
High school classes changing
For more than a decade, Bibb County high school students have used block scheduling. That gave them just four classes a semester -- but with more time spent in each class, and new classes each semester.
In February, the school board voted unanimously to switch to seven-period scheduling. Students schedules will remain the same -- 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- but theyll take the classes all year and will spend 50 minutes, instead of 90 minutes, in each class.
The school board has also signed off on lowering the requirements for graduation, because students will take seven, rather than eight, classes each year. The switch is expected to save about $2.8 million in salaries and benefits by the end of the fourth year of implementation. Students will actually spend about 10 percent more time in each class.
Familiar faces, new places
Some Bibb schools will have new leadership from school system veterans.
Brookdale Elementary veteran Kim Tolbert is moving to the principals seat. Keela Malone, who was scheduled to transfer out of Jones Elementary, will stay at Jones. Burghard Elementary will be led by LaLisa Burston, who was assistant principal at Appling Middle. Janice Sharpe, who had been assistant principal at Bloomfield Middle School, will lead Rice Elementary.
Bibb Countys four associate superintendents were also shifted after their positions were cut to narrow the budget deficit. Theyll all become school leaders: Tanzy Kilcrease at Southwest High, Bertha Caldwell to Skyview Elementary, Donna Jackson to Springdale Elementary and Terrence Martin to Porter Elementary.
In general, though -- besides pending reforms, budget-related cuts and the change from block scheduling -- this school year is expected to be pretty similar to last year.
For example, the school systems extended instructional day will continue. Dress codes remain. Theres also information on open houses, which began last week but will be early next week for most schools.
Parents and students can get more information on school supply lists, registration and other activities online at www.tinyurl.com/bibb1314 online.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.