Despite some tense moments, the Bibb County school board came away from its retreat this weekend with plans to hopefully improve the district.
The board members met with Superintendent Curtis Jones and key staff members on Friday evening and Saturday morning, with Saturday's four-hour session dedicated to plans related to the board's goals for its regular operations.
Specifically, boosting student achievement was targeted.
"The statement is if we accept that we can improve, there's no reason for not trying to do better," Jones said.
To illustrate how much room for growth each school has, Jones showed the board a graph from www.schooldigger.com, where each school's testing averages were plotted against the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches. While the data is a couple of years old, it reflects a statewide trend where those two numbers are inversely correlated, meaning high-achieving schools generally have a lower percentage of low-income families and vice versa.
What it also reflected was that each school in Bibb County, even high-achieving schools like Springdale Elementary, had room to grow within its group of similar schools.
As for the achievement gap between schools within the district, board member Tom Hudson pointed to the higher number of parents engaged in school activities at schools such as Springdale compared to inner-city schools.
"One thing is a lack of parental involvement and a lack of other people in the community wrapping their arms around the children," he said.
Board member Wanda West said that teacher qualifications could also contribute to the testing woes, specifically in reading. She said if teachers received more direct training for that key educational element, change would follow.
"You would see the test scores turn around," she said.
Jones confirmed that Veterans Elementary School, set to open this fall, was going to be something of a "pilot" for an initiative to help more teachers get a reading endorsement on their certificates.
"As schools are finding out what the root cause is, they're coming up with the solution," Jones said.
Board members will be doing more regular school visits to assess in person how things are going throughout the year.
The way the board handles its officer elections was also up for discussion. Board President Lester Miller said that the past few years, using a system where a nominating committee proposes a slate of officers to be approved by the board, had led to contentious proceedings.
"I'm to the point now, where I think we can just nominate from the floor," Miller said.
Other board members said that trust had been a central factor in those problems. Hudson said that he felt like, in the past, election of officers and other issues were decided in deals outside the boardroom and even felt like Miller had attempted to curry favor by taking him to an Atlanta Hawks game.
Miller said that invitation, which Hudson accepted, was misinterpreted.
"It was me reaching out that olive branch to try to make sure we could be friends on this board," he said.
Hudson, whose third and final term ends in December, said he wasn't sure that the board, as currently constituted, could reach a point where it could move forward from its division. Board member Ella Carter said that often divisive and political nature of the board was a "rude awakening" after she got elected.
"One of my biggest disappointments was getting on this board and seeing how politics really work," she said.
In the end, the board decided to discuss the issue of elections further at a later date while continuing to work on developing trust among its members.
"I really think it's a good thing to have these discussions," Miller said.
Jones described the retreat as a whole, which also included discussion about clearly defining the roles that One Macon's Business Educational Partnership and the ESPLOST Oversight Committee would have, as a "step forward" for the board. Board members, Miller and Hudson included, agreed that there were concerns with what perceptions each of those groups had about the involvement they'd have in decisions that ultimately fell to the school board.
"I thought it went pretty well," he said. "We realized we still need to work on trust, and they had a great open discussion."
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.