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Our Views: School progress a good start for 2014

Rising graduate rates, charter efforts show local districts are on right path

POSTED: December 29, 2013 1:00 a.m.

With a new year bringing both a fresh session of the state legislature and statewide elections, look for education to be a prominent recurring topic in state politics in 2014.

After years of budget cuts in reaction to the recession and dwindling tax revenues, state officials are promising to restore education funds to help boost performances of Georgia’s students.

It’s a worthwhile effort, no matter what has occurred before, and welcome news for parents who want to ensure their children have the best schools available.

As 2013 ends, both Gainesville and Hall County can crow a bit about their recent success.

Both school systems have posted a rise in graduation rates, a steady rise over the last two years. Hall County students graduated from high school at a 77.5 percent rate this year, up from 74.4 percent last year. That exceeds the state’s rate of 71.5 percent, which also is on the rise.

Gainesville’s four-year graduation rate climbed to 70.1 percent for 2013 from 66.5 percent in 2012.

Gainesville’s rate actually is even better for five-year students, 78 percent. That has led district officials to consider reducing the graduation credit requirement from 24 units to the statewide standard of 23. Such a move wouldn’t affect students’ learning — the classes would be just as challenging — but allow more to graduate within the four-year window.

These improvements didn’t happen by accident. Local schools are making a concerted effort to target struggling students and involve parents to help guide their children on a path toward a diploma.

“I think it’s made a big difference, some of the things we do,” said North Hall High principal Joe Gheesling, whose school posted a 95 percent graduation rate.

“We have conscientious students, we have dedicated teachers, and we have determined principals,” said Eloise Barron, Hall’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

Even the schools for nontraditional students had their graduation rates rise: Hall’s Lanier Charter Career Academy, 20.3 percent in 2013 up from 18.2 percent, and Gainesville’s Wood’s Mill Academy, 29.9 percent up from 26.9 percent.

“I think the graduation rate increase is reflective of building relationships,” Wood’s Mill principal Daryl White said. “Building positive, professional relationships with kids and letting them know you care about them first as a person and second as a student.”

And in what may be a cause-and-effect relationship, Hall’s school system shows the country’s fastest growing rate for public charter school students.

In the last two years, Hall grew 58 percent in charter enrollment, topping districts in San Diego and Florida as the nation’s highest rate. According to the report, 8,633 students were enrolled in the county’s charter programs for the 2012-13 school year, 32 percent of the district’s student population, the nation’s sixth highest percentage.

“This board of education has been committed to the fact that we’ve got to be willing to do some things differently in the year 2013. And I think we are,” Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said.

Gainesville’s entire system qualifies for charter school status.

The advantages, and results, of charter schools has been debated in recent years, many claiming that the more nontraditional teaching methods used there haven’t resulted in better grades or test scores. But it’s not hard to find a correlation between the local systems’ charter school efforts and better results in grades, test scores and graduation rates.

Look for more such efforts in the years to come as students respond to these innovative teaching methods that go beyond “teaching to the test” or basic memorization to achieve grades. Our state’s workforce needs strong critical thinkers who can take what they’ve learned in science, engineering and other disciplines and apply it to the problems industries face.

Yet one challenge remains: Test scores and graduation rates still are lower at schools in lower-income communities. Title 1 schools with a majority of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches lag behind their more affluent counterparts. That comes as no surprise, really, but needs to be addressed through targeted programs and funding efforts for schools in need.

Students from families with means are going to have a natural advantage: more access to technology, active parental support and facilities such as libraries and museums that can supplement learning. A home environment that values education is a key to driving children to succeed, but isn’t always easy to come by.

Another obstacle is language. In Gainesville, just 47.9 percent of students still learning English graduated in four years; Hall’s rate is 57.2 percent. Continuing efforts to assist these and other at-risk students will pay off when more of them can earn a diploma to become productive members of the community.

The success the local school districts have achieved is a good start to making sure no child is left behind. Now it’s up to state leaders, from the governor down to county and city officials, to ensure they have the resources needed to keep moving forward.


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