Teachers, parents air opinions on stimulus changes at forums

Bibb County teachers and parents got their chance Tuesday night to tell education officials what they think of plans to make drastic changes at four high schools.

Public hearings were held at Northeast, Southwest and Rutland high schools, as well as the Hutchings Career Center. Those schools were targeted by the state as being among the lowest-achieving schools, making them eligible for federal stimulus money if they make radical changes.

“School improvement grants” totaling $122 million are available to 23 school systems in Georgia — including Bibb and Peach. State officials told The Telegraph they will release the complete list of systems this week.

Bibb could receive up to $24 million over three years to be split among the four schools, but it will require those schools to adopt new reform models. The system must notify the state of its intentions by April 15.

Among the models schools can choose include replacing the schools’ principals, not rehiring half the teachers for the next school year, holding them accountable for their performances and requiring students to spend more time in the classroom.

School board members are set to vote at a 6 p.m. meeting Thursday at Central High School on whether to accept the money and on which model to adopt for each school. But first, system officials said they wanted to hear from parents and teachers.

“We’ve got four different school communities, and each school community has its own need,” said Bibb County school system’s Acting Superintendent Sylvia McGee. “(Stakeholder) input will be a guide” for the board’s decision.

At Northeast High, about 100 people attended Tuesday’s hearing, with many saying the system should turn down the money.

“Not any choice, I feel, is a good choice,” said Lonnie Miley, a former school board member who served 12 years until 2000. “It’s too forced and too fast. The problem the system is trying to address didn’t start yesterday.”

Forty-five people attended the session at Hutchings Career Center.

There are four reform models to choose from.

— The “turnaround model” includes replacing the principal, rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff, providing professional development for staff, using test data to drive instruction and increasing school instruction time. Using this model would allow a school that is considered in “needs improvement” status under the No Child Left Behind law to wipe its slate clean and lose that underperforming label. Doing so could be attractive to Southwest and Northeast, since both schools are in state-directed status. They would not longer be required to offer student transfers, pay for private tutoring or have a state worker shadow the school leadership.

— The “restart model” includes the school system’s reopening as a charter school, but school officials say the state has not given adequate time for Bibb to use this model because it can take up to a year to enter the charter process.

— The “closure model” calls for closing a school and sending those students to a higher-performing school, but officials aren’t considering this model since each of the four schools has more than 800 students enrolled.

— The “transformation model” includes replacing the principal and implementing a new staff evaluation program, which would reward teachers who increase student test scores and remove those who don’t. It also calls for increasing student instruction time and heavily using test data.

If Bibb accepts the money, it will mean hiring a new principal at Northeast, its third in three years and fourth in six years.

Current principal Herbert Hodges, who has been on the job just one year, said he hasn’t started looking for a new job yet.

“Is it in the back of my mind, of course,” he said. “(A decision) has not been made by the board.”

“You can’t expect a faculty to have a rate change when you change leadership on a consistent basis,” said Jadun McCarthy, an English teacher at Northeast who doesn’t have a preferred model choice.

Hutchings principal Ron McCall said he’s focusing on his daily duties and not worrying about his future with the school until the school board makes a decision.

Cliff Money, whose son is a junior at Hutchings, said he thinks the timing of the grant is bad and the method is short-sighted. He had high praise for McCall and other staff members at Hutchings.

“This process seems to be grossly flawed,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify the long-term damage of (replacing staff members). It would put the entire school in turmoil.”

Joyce Johnson, whose daughter is in her second year at Hutchings, said there’s a lot to absorb from the meeting and not a lot of time to do it. She also said she thinks McCall has done a good job.

“I’m concerned about changing our principal,” she said. “He has been a good principal. The students have a lot of respect for this principal.”

On the other hand, Johnson said an infusion of grant money would have a huge impact on the school.

“I definitely know the school needs the funds,” she said. “At this point, you have to apply for all these grants.”

If schools choose the turnaround model, all teachers would reapply for their jobs, but only up to 50 percent would be rehired.

Under the turnaround model scenario, McGee said system officials would consider how effective teachers are in the classroom by using different data to select who can stay. Students’ End of Course Tests in a teacher’s class, a teacher’s evaluation, system assessments and the teacher’s commitment to more training all would be factors, she said. School officials aren’t sure yet if principals and teachers can transfer to other jobs.

“I hope my track record will allow me to come back,” McCarthy said. “In this economy it will be devastating for a lot of teachers to be contracted and then told they won’t have a job.”

McGee said while a new slate under the turnaround model also is attractive, “we won’t be swayed by it.”

The state identified Bibb’s four high schools because in two out of three years that officials took into account, each of those schools had a less-than-60-percent graduation rate in one of those years, missed Adequate Yearly Progress goals a number of times and were among the state’s lowest achieving Title I schools.

School officials have said that in a sense, they are being forced to take the grants or submit a report to the state providing a rationale for why the district is turning down the millions in funding.

The system has to file its report to the state by April 15, setting out a three-year plan for each school’s improvement, providing each school’s available resources and other data.

The reform models would take effect this fall. The four schools, in order to continue receiving the annual federal funding, would have to show between a 5 percent to 10 percent gain in testing and graduation rates.

Telegraph staff writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.