Consistency is one benefit of 'strategic waivers' model, school leaders say

As Houston County and other districts prepare to become "strategic waivers" school systems, one question remains.

What, exactly, is that?

"Basically, a strategic waivers school system is one that can petition the state board for specific waivers from state laws or rules that give more flexibility within the school system," said Jennifer Birdsong, director of federal programs for Houston County schools. "And that flexibility, of course, comes with accountability."

Bibb, Crawford, Jones, Monroe and Twiggs counties have also either been approved for that governance model or have expressed their intent to do so, while Peach County has elected to become a charter system.

For Houston County, the decision came down to governance due to the size of the county's school system, Birdsong said, since a charter system places a governing board at each individual school.

"For a system our size, we want to maintain consistency across our schools, give schools the autonomy to do what they need to do to better student improvement at the school level, but at the same time, we need to maintain consistent curriculum path across the system," she said.

Statewide, about 75 percent of the 180 school systems chose the strategic waivers path, formerly called an Investing in Educational Excellence or IE2 model, with most of the rest choosing the charter system. Just two districts -- Webster County and the Buford city system -- elected to maintain the status quo or seek no additional waivers.

That percentage was in line with what state officials had expected, said Matt Cardoza, communications director with the Georgia Department of Education. No correlation between district size and which model was chosen had been established yet.

"We haven't done that analysis," he wrote in an email.

The waivers a school receives can be for a variety of purposes -- think student-teacher ratio, for example -- and some of them have already been put in place in districts such as Houston County.

Birdsong said that waiver wasn't in any effort to make classes much larger but more for planning for issues that might arise in the five years that the strategic waivers model is in place.

For instance, if a school has four third-grade classes that are all at the maximum capacity by state law and one new child moves in, the district doesn't want to have to completely reconstitute all four classes and bring in a new teacher.

"We have never had to act upon having that waiver in place because we know we want to keep class size down so that we can ... individualize the instruction," Birdsong said.

Other waivers that Houston County is requesting would be something of a change for the district, like one asking for relief from certification requirements for teachers.

Houston County would still seek "highly qualified" individuals whose abilities would be vetted, but Birdsong said the district wants to be open to the potential for people from other career fields being assets in the classroom.

In high school grades and in vocational programs, sometimes the best candidate that is most knowledgeable about the subject area might be someone who doesn't have a background in education, she said.

"That is actually a trend in education right now," she said. "Oftentimes in our Career Academy, we might want to explore a teacher that has an engineering degree coming in and helping with mechanics or something to that degree. We would not necessarily require that that teacher have a teaching certificate. Their content knowledge makes them more than highly qualified for the position."

Richard Rogers, the district's director of personnel, reinforced that those candidates would still need to have solid credentials to teach. Further, he said the district had no intention of carrying the same process over to core classes at traditional schools, but the day could come in which someone with a background as a physicist might need to be hired as a physics teacher.

"By having it in our flexibility, it would give us that option," he said.

Of course, systems aren't granted all that flexibility without a greater level of accountability.

Schools will be expected to improve or maintain, in some cases, their College and Career Ready Performance Index, which is based on student achievement on the Georgia Milestones test, as well as other measures.

Schools that don't meet those goals face sanctions and even a takeover at the state level, but Birdsong said Houston County is hoping to avoid that through early intervention.

Additionally, each school will be equipped with the capability to look at "leading data" -- assessments throughout the year -- as opposed to "lagging data" -- test scores from one set of assessments that aren't known until the school year is at least nearly complete -- to identify students and classes that may need remedial help.

"I think it's about knowing and serving the whole child," Birdsong said. "In Houston County, our mission is to produce high-achieving students. The mission is not to produce high-achieving test takers."

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.