New school year means start of Macon Miracle initiatives

Months after its stormy debut, the Macon Miracle plan for Bibb County public school students is about to take hold in earnest across the system.

Among school Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s initiatives put in place for the 2012-13 school year are Mandarin Chinese for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, new alternative schools at Barden Elementary, Bloomfield Middle and Hutchings Career Center, additional teacher training and the extensive use of data to monitor student academic progress more closely throughout the year.

Other major parts of the plan such as portfolio schools -- which would allow students to attend schools based on their academic interests -- will be set in motion later.

The Bibb school board approved the comprehensive student improvement plan in March, with goals to improve operations in six areas: students, staff, parents and community, teaching and learning, technology, and school structure. System leaders began rolling out part of the plan almost immediately, and it is expected to be fully in place by the 2016-17 school year.

Parts of the plan drew fire after they became public, but now that classes are about to start, school board and system officials said they hope parents and students will embrace the initiatives.

“I would hope that people would take away the thought that we are really doing work that’s in the best interest of the children of Bibb County,” said Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, deputy superintendent of school improvement and redesign. “The second thing I would hope people take away is hope. I think hope for the kids that we would get better outcomes for them, I think hope for us as adults that we would be creating an environment where adults feel that they’re learning and growing and challenged and supported to do so.

“To me, I think that would be a wonderful first step toward getting our kids the lives that we really want them to have, which is to have strength of character and to be college-ready.”

Board member Tom Hudson said he wants the community to support the Macon Miracle initiatives for the success of the county’s students.

“It will help improve the quality of education for the students of Bibb County,” he said. “It takes everyone working together.”

One of the most talked about parts of the plan is the introduction of Mandarin Chinese courses for students in pre-kindergarten through third grades this fall, with rollout for all students by the 2015-16 school year. This year, the district is bringing in 25 teachers through the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University. The teachers will deliver instruction to students three times a week for 20 minutes at a time.

Christy Partain, the president of Heard Elementary’s Parent Teacher Association, said she is looking forward to some of the new initiatives.

She said she has some reservations about students, including her first-grade son, starting to learn Mandarin. She thinks Spanish might be more beneficial. Still, she said she is open-minded about the possibilities.

“I’m excited about the changes that are going to happen,” said Partain, who also has a fourth-grade daughter. “We’ll have to wait and see what plays out.”

Karyne McCooley, however, has bigger concerns about the introduction of Mandarin to Bibb students. While she understands the rationale behind it, given China’s role in American economics, she said no one around her speaks the language, and it will be difficult for parents to learn the language while trying to help their children.

“I’m very much against it,” said McCooley, whose fourth-grade daughter attends Porter Elementary. “I don’t see the use for it. I don’t see the need for it.”

The Macon Miracle will bring changes to the classroom for students in all grades, putting an emphasis on math and reading.

Those in kindergarten through third grade will have a 90-minute reading block during the day. In the plan, students also will receive high-level math instruction: 75 minutes for elementary school students, 60 minutes for those in middle school and 55 minutes for high school students.

School leaders have said that building fundamental skills in reading and math will better prepare students for success in other subjects.

Tracking students’ progress

Not only will the plan bring changes in day-to-day classes for students, but it also will affect the way teachers and administrators monitor their progress in those classes. Employees will use assessment tools to gauge a student’s knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, then use data to track and supplement student learning during the year.

The plan also aims to give direction to students toward future college and career plans.

Starting in the fourth grade, students will have individual learning plans and meet with counselors once a quarter to keep track of their college readiness, according to the system’s management plan.

McCooley said she liked that initiative, comparing it to the way she’s seen teachers prepare for standardized tests.

Some teachers wait until right before the test, but she said she thinks students are better off with teachers who do so from the beginning. She said she also thinks students would be better off in the future if they start planning ahead.

“Preparing along the way, I can see huge benefits,” she said.

The system will bring in a career coach coordinator and seven career coaches -- one at each high school -- through a partnership with the Macon-Bibb County Office of Workforce Development. This year, the goal is to have each ninth-grader have a high school plan through and have all 10th-graders choose a career pathway, according to the system’s management plan.

While some of the plan’s classroom initiatives will be rolled out during the 2012-13 school year, there’s been training for teachers and other staffers for several months already. Teachers have been receiving training in the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, which will be rolled out statewide in the 2012-13 school year, and staff at schools receiving the federal GEAR UP grant have started training with math tools for students.

This summer, some workers have received training from the Efficacy Institute, with the goal to train students as leaders, as well as from the Pacific Educational Group, which aims to address achievement gaps among students of different races.

Bibb school leaders want to make sure teachers and administrators are prepared to help students in a time of transition, Griffin-Ziebart said.

“We know that our teachers, our principals, our administrative staff are busy, busy people, and their days get filled with stuff that needs to get done supporting students, so if we don’t intentionally create the space and the time for their learning, it’s very easy to neglect the learning of the adults,” she said. “We want to be very intentional about being sure that we create time for them to continue to develop their skills and their will and their capacity so that they can be better able to serve our students.”

Plan is flexible

Along with new initiatives for teachers and students, the district will begin its roll-out of “wraparound” services, including mental health and counseling services for students. The system is expected to develop a plan for free behavioral health services and to forge community partnerships to refer students for services this year. It’s also supposed to provide counseling by gender and set up prevention teams at schools. Bibb schools will begin hiring up to 10 mental health specialists and 10 social workers by 2020.

This year, the Bibb County school system is replacing its Ombudsman program with three alternative schools at Barden Elementary, Bloomfield Middle and Hutchings Career Center that are expected to open by the start of school Aug. 13.

The school system will begin exploring alternative learning settings for students who may do better in a nontraditional environment, such as night school or other flexible scheduling, Griffin-Ziebart said.

The system is also looking at what technology works best in the classroom and what teachers need to make the best use of it. The system also plans to rewire its buildings to support new school technology initiatives down the line.

Outside the classroom, school leaders are working on community partnerships for initiatives such as a Promise Neighborhoods grant, which could bring millions of dollars to help students who attend Ingram-Pye and Hartley elementary schools, Ballard-Hudson Middle and Southwest High. Bibb schools are working with Mercer University, the city of Macon, Bibb County, Central Georgia Technical College, the Knight and Peyton Anderson foundations, and other organizations on the grant, which was submitted in late July.

System leaders also are looking at the system’s finances in the process, including a look at the structure of different departments to figure out how to best meet students’ needs, Griffin-Ziebart said.

As employees from the system’s assessment and accountability office have retired in recent months, Griffin-Ziebart said she has looked to incorporate more duties involving research and evaluation of student performance, while moving other tasks to other departments.

The school system will begin work on the initiatives scheduled to start during the 2012-13 school year, though some parts may not happen as planned, with state and federal leaders deciding how teacher evaluations at Race to the Top schools will be implemented, while other needs may arise, she said.

“The plan is supposed to be flexible,” she said. “It guides us, it guides our work, it helps focus our work, but it’s not something that cannot be modified if our student needs would suggest to us that that’s an important thing for us to do.”

Partain said the plan is still new for parents and students, and there may be some hesitation as everyone learns how the initiatives will work.

“If we all keep an open mind about it, the benefits for the children and getting them ready to be adults ... it’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.