When the students of Peach County High School return to class Tuesday, their school won’t be quite the same place they left in May.
They won’t have textbooks, or lockers to put them in. Instead, each student will be issued a laptop to work on interactive, collaborative projects and look at course materials.
The Trojan Academy for ninth-graders is gone, too. In its place are three new, themed academies — arts and humanities; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and human services.
“Come in and see what’s going on,” said Bruce Mackey, principal of Peach County High.
The school will be getting $5.2 million in school improvement grant funds during three years. Peach County became eligible to receive the funds to turn around its low academic performance, among the bottom 5 percent of Georgia schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds.
In Middle Georgia, schools in Bibb, Pulaski and Dooly counties are also receiving the federal funds.
Peach County High’s underperformance has less to do with the students and teachers there and more to do with unstable leadership, both at the school and systemwide levels, Mackey said.
Within six years, Peach County High School has had four principals, and the system has had seven superintendents in 10 years.
“With that kind of change and turnover at the top, it creates constant movement. It’s hard to develop a pattern of success,” said Mackey, who has led the school for three years.
All things considered, a completely new approach is just what Peach County High needs to move forward, he said.
“If we’re in the lowest 5 percent, my question is, why not change? Obviously, what we’re doing is not quite right,” he said. “Something needs to be fixed.”
In the classroom, one of the most marked changes is project-based learning, in which students work together using a problem-solving approach to schoolwork.
Students also will see more interdisciplinary classes, such as one for freshmen that combines English and computer applications. A marketing project and podcast are among the students’ future assignments, said Lakisha Bobbitt, who will teach the English component of the class with computer applications teacher James Lassetter.
“A lot of it is using 21st century skills as well as standard literary genres,” Bobbitt said.
Those students will be working in one of several classrooms around the school that were combined from two smaller rooms. Windows have been installed along one wall to allow visitors to observe from the hallway.
With the projects, learning becomes more interactive and relevant to students as future members of the work force, Mackey said.
“It’s not me spitting something out and you give it back to me. That’s not learning,” Mackey said. “It’s practical, hands-on knowledge.”
Mackey said he and the teachers have been working hard to revamp the structure of the school for months, so students and parents could witness the fruits of their labor at an open house this past Thursday before the beginning of school.
Peach County officials applied for the grant in the spring, giving them relatively little time to put a plan into action. Before the application was submitted, teachers were asked to either sign a letter of commitment to the changes the school would take on or to sign a letter of resignation.
As a result, 10 teachers chose to resign, Mackey said. Once the school’s academic restructuring took place, officials decided they would only need to fill seven of the jobs.
Teachers also had to undergo weeks of instructional and technological training during the summer, sacrificing vacation plans and other personal time, Mackey said.
In the end, though, the teachers have had a positive attitude toward the process.
“With all those pieces of the puzzle coming together, I’m very proud of the staff,” Mackey said. “Come Tuesday, I’ll be proud to see this come together.”
The Bibb County school system plans to pay teachers incentives up to $750 for raising student achievement. They system also plans to use some of its grant money to buy iPods or Netbooks, as well as offer students after-school tutoring.
The school system first expected to get up to $24 million in school improvement grants during three years to be split among four high schools, but the award was just about half that.
The system will get $12.8 million instead.
“Nobody got all they asked for,” said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. “Depending on what was in their plan determined what (the state felt) they could fund.”
A state school improvement team reviewed school system requests and plans, and those with more unique and sustainable plans likely got more funding, he said.
“It was more about strategies and means of using resources and having that longevity,” he said.
Starting this fall, Rutland, Northeast and Southwest high schools as well as Hutchings Career Center will make the first of changes as part of their improvement plans, including more instruction and technology.
“All schools are adding 30 minutes to their schedules,” said Cathy Magouyrk, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.
Some of the schools cut out breaks to make up the difference or will end later.
The schools will use part of the grant money to buy iPods or Netbooks, or both, for students to use.
Three days a week, students will have the option to stay after school until 6 p.m. for tutoring or credit recovery, and still be bused home.
Teachers at those schools also have options to stay after school and get paid to tutor students, as well as work two days after school and get paid for planning or professional development, she said.
A large portion of the grant is to create new ways to evaluate teacher performance and to reward those who boost student achievement.
Effective teachers could earn additional planning time, partial reimbursement to attend educational conferences and $750 bonuses per year as part of Bibb’s plan, Magouyrk said.
The four high schools will give tests at the end of subject units to measure how effective teachers are in the classroom as one way to measure their success.
The rewards won’t kick in until 2011-12 because the evaluation process and tests are still being developed and because teachers are training this school year.