Deal’s ‘failing schools’ proposal drawing mixed reviews

Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent proposal that could target midstate schools for state intervention is drawing mixed reviews from education officials.

Failing schools in Bibb and Twiggs counties are being targeted under Deal’s Opportunity School District plan, which would allow the state to temporarily step in “to assist chronically failing schools.”

Those “failing schools” are ones at the bottom of the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.

The details of how the state would take over the schools are still unclear, and that has plenty of education officials wringing their hands.

The proposed legislation -- modeled after a plan used to improve New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina -- has drawn both praise and criticism, said Bill Sampson of the Georgia School Boards Association. Some schools showed improvement under the plan, but others didn’t.

“Just because the state takes over something is no guarantee that it’s going to be successful,” he said.

Other education professionals don’t seem convinced that schools would improve with Deal’s proposal.

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he’s open to having the conversation but doesn’t think it’s the answer to the root problem. The proposed school district reorganization model used by Louisiana and Tennessee won’t work for Georgia, he said, because it’s comparing apples with oranges.

“Georgia is not Tennessee, and it certainly is not Louisiana,” Callahan said.

The main problem, he said, is students who are so dramatically affected by poverty that they have “a raft of needs.”

Low-performing schools generally have many students who come from low-income families, Callahan said. And poor students often struggle academically, he said, because of recurring problems stemming from their quality of life -- from health issues to their home environment.

“None of those struggles are going to be addressed by simply changing out the administrative structure of their school. The problem is a little more difficult, a little more expensive and a little more complicated that the governor and his folks would have us believe,” Callahan said.

“The governor speaks to three consistent years of schools failing. There’s a direct correlation to poverty,” added Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, Bibb County’s interim school superintendent.

Robert Shepherd, a teacher at Williams Elementary (and one of the schools on the failing list), said he’s concerned about how a top-down directive would affect teachers’ autonomy.

Shepherd, who also serves as the local Bibb County representative for the Georgia Association of Educators, said that with the added bureaucratic red tape, “teachers will lose their voice.”

He also questioned who will be in charge of the administrative structure should the state take over a failing school.

“You have to wonder who is in the governor’s office,” Shepherd said. “Are these educators, or are these just businessmen who don’t really know what our kids need?”

Over the years, Callahan said, the state has had many plans for addressing school improvement, but it has never followed through with providing the additional resources needed by those failing schools.

“It’s easy to say we’re just going to change out the administration, but that doesn’t get at the root of the problem,” he said.

Of the 149 schools on the “failing” list, there are 14 Bibb schools: Brookdale, Bruce, Burghard, Hartley, Ingram-Pye, King Danforth, Rice, Riley and Williams elementary schools; Appling, Ballard-Hudson and Bloomfield middle schools; and Northeast and Southwest high schools. In Twiggs County, the “failing” schools are Jeffersonville Elementary and Twiggs County High School.

“I don’t think anybody really wants to take over a school, but I think they want a mechanism in place that if these schools don’t improve and don’t show improvement, that they can be taken over,” Sampson said. “It’s kind of like if you don’t clean up your house, we’ll have to come in and clean it up for you.”

Castlin-Gacutan said she was concerned to learn of the Bibb schools on the failing schools list.

“That was alarming, because we want to make sure that all of our students are achieving -- and achieving at high levels,” she said.

The good news, she said, is that Bibb County schools have an opportunity to come off the list.

“We have a little bit of time, and that’s the goal.”

To contact writer David Schick, call 744-4382.