Education

Peach school district embraces flexibility, challenges of being a new charter system

Byron Elementary School Junior ROTC Lt. Elliott Colson Jr., left, says his name during roll call at school Jan. 8. The Peach County school system is now a charter system, which allows more flexibility for the district and individual schools. Byron Elementary Principal Keith Lauritsen said his school has been able to implement the JROTC program and added 20 extra instruction minutes to the day since the district became a charter system.
Byron Elementary School Junior ROTC Lt. Elliott Colson Jr., left, says his name during roll call at school Jan. 8. The Peach County school system is now a charter system, which allows more flexibility for the district and individual schools. Byron Elementary Principal Keith Lauritsen said his school has been able to implement the JROTC program and added 20 extra instruction minutes to the day since the district became a charter system. wmarshall@macon.com

Peach County was looking for more flexibility for its schools and found it in the charter system. The state approved the district's charter application in September 2016, and since then, leaders have been busy checking initiatives off their action plan.

Charter districts can receive waivers on some state rules and regulations but face higher accountability when it comes to student performance. There are more than 40 charter school systems in Georgia, including Putnam County, Baldwin County and Dublin, according to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.

Peach County wanted to use the charter system's flexibility to address low student achievement on reading and math assessments; develop a teacher recruitment and retention plan; improve school climate; and better meet the diverse learning needs of students, according to the district's charter application.

“One size does not always fit every school in a county or a school system, and this allows for programs to customize for student achievement and enrichment,” Superintendent Daryl Fineran said in a previous Telegraph article.

The majority of the changes so far have involved class sizes and school schedules, said Wanda Stewart, superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Peach district. More reading instruction time was added at the elementary schools since a large number of students were reading below grade level.

The district wanted to be able to increase class sizes in subjects such as physical education and reduce class sizes in other subjects where smaller groups were beneficial. In addition, Peach County wanted more flexibility on how children were scheduled into Individualized Education Program and remedial classes, Stewart said.

The county's six schools can adjust operations to fit the individual needs of their students and community, Fineran said. Each school elects a local governance team composed of staff, administrators, parents and community leaders, Stewart said. Members go through training on school processes and responsibilities, finance, federal programs, accreditation, school improvement and more.

The team helps make decisions for the schools and presents requests for changes and innovations to the district's Board of Education for approval.

"I think what it does mostly is it helps us to bring more people into the discussion about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," said Keith Lauritsen, principal of Byron Elementary. "I don't feel like we're operating in isolation, necessarily. I feel like we've brought more stakeholders into the game as a result of it."

Byron Elementary was able to add a Junior ROTC program, the first in a Georgia elementary school. The school also moved its start time from 8:35 to 8:15 a.m., which allowed enough time to expand language arts instruction to two and a half hours, he said.

The students struggle most with this content area, and Lauritsen thinks those extra 20 minutes daily are going to build grade level reading skills and help students reach their goals.

"I think it's actually given the schools a little bit more authority to make decisions and changes in their building that are going to benefit their students," Stewart said. "It's like our schools are becoming their own separate universities. There are some things we all share in common because they are district needs, but then there are other things that this is truly a need in (one) building."

Stewart said it's been exciting to have these state waivers available to the district, but it's also been a challenge figuring out how to use them and making sure everything is in compliance with federal guidelines.

The district has been slowly rolling out and documenting innovations, such as a student support program for college and career readiness strategies, more advanced content classes, school data teams, systemwide screenings for reading and math at the elementary level, and the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and Response to Intervention programs, according to Stewart and the district's charter application.

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