What’s in store for Georgia’s lowest-performing schools?

Georgia’s Chief Turnaround Officer Eric Thomas will lead the state’s school improvement efforts.
Georgia’s Chief Turnaround Officer Eric Thomas will lead the state’s school improvement efforts.

Georgia’s lowest-performing schools should know by the end of the year whether they’ll be subject to state intervention.

Among the schools that will be considered are eight in the Bibb County district, three in Dooly County and one in Peach County.

Eric Thomas will lead school improvement efforts as the “chief turnaround officer” and starts work Thursday. The state school board hired him on Oct. 25 to fulfill the requirements of a new law, the First Priority Act, that passed in the spring.

Turnaround schools

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement identified 104 schools on its Turnaround Eligible Schools List, released Nov. 3. The schools on the report have three-year-average College and Career Readiness Index scores in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

The list replaces the state’s “chronically failing” report, which included schools with a CCRPI three-year-average score of 60 or less. Bibb had 11 schools on last year’s report. Schools on the new list had a CCRPI score of less than 54.

“In the past, if you could ever get over 60, then you knew you could come off the list,” said Bibb school Superintendent Curtis Jones. “This now says somebody’s always going to be on the list. They’re just going to keep finding the new 5 percent.”

The new format recognizes that Georgia’s rating system is harder than surrounding states and throughout the country, Jones said.

The 2017 Turnaround Eligible Schools List includes Bibb County’s Appling and Ballard-Hudson middle schools and Bruce, Martin Luther King Jr., Riley, Southfield, Union and Veterans elementary schools. MLK, Veterans and Southfield are consolidated schools that brought the history of their old schools with them, Jones said.

Hunt Elementary in Peach County and Dooly County’s elementary, middle and high schools are also on the list. The state suspended Dooly County school board members last November and swore in new members in January.

Thomas said the state will not be involved with all the schools on the turnaround list, but he is unsure at this point how many will be chosen. There will be a purposeful and strategic approach to selecting the schools so the most impact can be made.

Staff members could work with all low-performing schools in a district, or they could choose to work with just a couple schools and have the others learn by example. Trends will play a role in the selection too. For instance, a school that’s been showing steady improvement and going in the right direction may not be chosen.

Schools should be identified before winter break so the improvement process can start next semester, Thomas said. Jones said Thomas has not contacted him, and the Bibb district plans to provide additional support to its schools on the turnaround list.

A new law

The First Priority Act followed 2016’s failed Opportunity School District amendment, which would have allowed the state to take control of public schools deemed to be failing. The new legislation is a partnership with schools and districts, not a takeover, Thomas said.

The act called for the creation of the chief turnaround officer position, as well as hiring turnaround coaches for the schools and selection of third-party specialists to conduct school evaluations. Thomas most recently worked with schools and districts across the country as the chief support officer for the University of Virginia’s turnaround program.

Students identified as low-performing will receive extra support and resources, and on-site reviews of the selected schools will be conducted to determine “the root causes of low performance and lack of progress,” according to the legislation.

Recommendations from the evaluation could include reallocation of resources, changes in school procedures or operations, professional learning opportunities for staff, teacher mentoring, waivers from state rules, smaller class sizes, and extended instruction time. Feedback will be sought from parents and the community.

The state will help schools develop, monitor and implement improvement plans and work with them on a weekly basis, Thomas said. Strategies will differ from school to school and cater to individual needs and situations.

“Each school and each district is different. You have to honor the fact that they have their own culture,” Thomas said. “You always look at the role the district plays. School turnaround is not simply about the school; it’s also what the district (does) to support the school, to hold it accountable.”

Low-performing schools can’t be transformed in three or six months, and the process will take time, Thomas said. The state may work with schools that are almost off the list for just one or two years and others for multiple years.

If a school has not shown improvement after three years working with the state, the turnaround officer can order actions such as the removal of school personnel, hiring new staff, relocation of students to another public school, or transfer of school operations to a private, non-profit third party or successful school system, according to the legislation.

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea

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