Turnaround chief picks three Bibb schools

Apparently, three Bibb County schools will be getting state assistance, really whether they like it or not, and somebody forgot to keep the Bibb Board of Education in the loop — or so it seems.

Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that three of the first 11 schools chosen by the state’s first Chief Turnaround Office, Eric Thomas, are in Bibb County — Appling Middle School, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, both in east Macon, and Veterans Elementary in west Macon.

Thomas had eight schools to choose from in Bibb, and quite frankly, we’re a bit surprised he didn’t skip past Bibb altogether. We’ve been doing a pretty good turnaround job on our own. It wasn’t very long ago when Bibb had 13 schools on the failing list.

We are also surprised he picked these three school. Appling’s three-year College and Career Ready Performance Index average is 50.4; MLK, 49.9 and Veterans, 50.9. Ballard-Hudson Middle School has a three-year average CCRPI of 45.5, the fourth lowest score on the entire 104 school list. And there are plenty of schools, including 41 in the Atlanta area, he could have chosen. Instead, he didn’t pick one, preferring all the schools in Dooly County, three schools in Dougherty County and one each in Clay and Randolph counties.

Thomas says the urban districts have the resources to turn their own schools around, and while that’s true, what is probably going unsaid, is that the bigger the system, the bigger the bureaucracy. Also going unsaid is that the resources at his command are not limitless. There will be plenty of time to add more schools to his plate. He plans to addd more school as early as spring.

Thomas has been busy, he started his job Nov. 16, and the AJC quoted him saying that this first cohort of schools were “volunteers.” However, Daryl Morton, president of the Bibb School Board told the AJC, that Superintendent Curtis Jones was still talking with the principals at the targeted schools, and that the school board hadn’t discussed whether to participate, yet. To his knowledge, Morton said, “no formal decision has been made,” but he also said, “We want to cooperate and leverage as many resources as we can.”

The reality is this, districts have to participate or else. The state has various screws it can turn to make saying no to the turnaround effort impossible.

One of the biggest challenges Thomas will find here, as well as in the schools chosen further south, is poverty and how to address it? Recent studies have shown poverty’s impact on the learning process before a child ever enters the school house door.

Though a long-time Cincinnati resident, Thomas was born in Savannah, so the South is not foreign to him. But he also comes into a state where funding, though increasing now, took a $8 billion hit during the Great Recession. Spending levels remain far below what they were before the economic downturn.

The next step for the Bibb school board is to, we guess, find out what’s going on. If the board doesn’t already know, they should probably brush up on what House Bill 338, The First Priority Act, actually says and what powers it gives the turnaround chief.

By law, the school board has to enter into a intervention contract with the State Board of Education. From there they will select a consultant for each school “to conduct a comprehensive on-site diagnostic review in cooperation with the regional educational service agency” to determine why the school is not performing.

Here’s the section of the law that will probably scare the bejesus out of school personnel: “The comprehensive on-site diagnostic review shall include a leadership assessment to determine the capacity of the school leader to lead the turnaround efforts, as well as a review of system level support and interventions, including central office policies and supports, technical assistance and guidance, financial management, and appropriate use of resources in accordance with approved waivers under the system charter or contract.”

We don’t have space to print the entire 19 page bill here, but it’s online at www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20172018/170167.pdf.

Needless to say, there are carrots and there are sticks. If the carrots don’t work to bring a school’s performance up or the district doesn’t cooperate, the turnaround chief could bring the stick, which could include replacing teachers and administrators or even turning over the school to another district or a not-for-profit charter operator.