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Area schools bracing for change in 2012
State revamps education with curriculum shifts, teacher evaluations
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Looking ahead: Education

Each day this week, The Times will preview coming changes in a top issue in Northeast Georgia. Today, a look at education.

As the ball drops this New Year's Eve, local school system leaders will be looking a little further ahead for changes to come in 2012.

"There are a couple of big things coming in the legislature in terms of funding," Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. "It's going to be a big to-do."

Charter changes

The first major change involves a bill passed under former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's term. By 2013, all school systems must convert to either a charter system or an Investing in Educational Excellence, or IE2, system, according to the bill.

Dyer said the question now is whether the legislature will withdraw that whole bill, along with the requirement to convert, or if it will extend the deadline from 2013. Much of the decision hinges on funding changes, especially for systems like Gainesville, which already converted to the charter system.

"One of the reasons that we jumped out there first was we were anticipating it not being funded but for a certain amount of time," Dyer said. "That's pretty consistent with initiatives in Georgia.

After a little bit, especially if money gets tight, it's not funded."

Dyer said when the school system chose to go charter, officials thought if they were funded for seven years they'd be lucky.

Charter systems receive about $100 per student, aside from austerity reductions, in additional funding.

Dyer found out recently that funding of charter systems might face "big opposition" by government leaders. Dyer said even though the charter systems get between $635,000 and $650,000 in additional funding, they're facing $4 million in cuts.

"Can you keep doing it and keep cutting everyone?" Dyer said. "That's going to be a big thing and it's probably going to be opened up right when the legislature opens."

The issue for Gainesville, Dyer said, is the system is due to reapply for charter status by December 2012. It's up to the school board to decide if they want to go through that process again, even if there's no state funding for it.

She said this would not affect the schools of choice format.

"If we're not required to (convert), and there's no funding, the school board would have to decide if we want to keep the school system charter status. The biggest thing is governance — does the school board want to convert the school governance councils into school councils and remove a lot of their decision-making?" Dyer said.

Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent, is also looking at the legislative session for answers.

IE2 is similar to charter but is a lot more flexible in terms of what schools can do. Hall County was prepared to be the third IE2 district, behind Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, and the only one with charter schools in it.

"Two years ago we were ready to go IE2. That came to make a lot of sense for us. We started the initial planning and initial writing of the IE2 plan and that was about the time the financial wheels came off at the state level," Schofield said. "We put that plan on hold and I'll be surprised if we don't continue to put that on hold. I'll look forward legislatively for that deadline to be extended because I don't think the means are there to support systems, especially charter systems, and they're running as lean as they can."

Evaluating teachers

Gainesville and Hall systems, along with 24 others in the state, will be the first to experience changes related to Race to the Top, a $400 million federal education reform initiative.

The districts will pilot a new teacher evaluation system beginning in January, which assesses teachers' performance on three criteria: observation by administrators, student surveys and student achievement data.

The state plans to use the new evaluation system as it moves toward paying teachers based on performance.

For the student achievement portion, some classes are judged on standardized tests. Others, such as music and subjects taught in third grade and below, will be measured on Student Learning Objectives created by school districts.

The existing evaluation system is rubric-based, but its large amounts of components made it difficult to manage.

"The revised version is simpler, less complex and easier to understand," Dyer said. "It's an improvement over what we've learned to use."

State officials contended earlier this year that any pay-for-performance part of Race to the Top will not be implemented for several years, but teachers' concerns are rising.

The salary schedule is set by the legislature and then the state school board and Professional Standards Commission.

"In the information we have so far, it says teachers can opt out (from pay for performance) to a legislatively passed salary scale. It doesn't say opt in or out and take what they've got now," Dyer said. "We're clear on what questions are on there."

One of her main concerns is the legalities, especially when it comes to the student achievement data on the teacher evaluations.

"If I'm a teacher and my compensation is being evaluated on the growth of my students on a learning objective that the school system developed that I was able to see, and my neighbor next door is based on a CRCT or EOCT they don't get to see, and we're going to be judged side-by-side and possibly our certification based on it? There's going to be legal issues," she said.

Curriculum shifts

Even what the teachers are teaching will be changing starting in August, when the Common Core Standards replace the existing Georgia Performance Standards.

About 40 states are already using Common Core standards. They have access to collective and collaborative test banks, resources, lesson plans and a variety of teaching resources that Georgia will be able to use and submit to as well.

"There's a fairly shared consensus that Common Core are going to help Georgia. It's not drastically different from the performance standards we have, but it will raise the bar for the expectations and it will make us consistent with other states," Dyer said. "What we know now is because Hall, Gainesville ... were Race to the Top districts; we got a really good head start on Common Core. Our neighbors that aren't Race to the Top districts are really looking to us now for how we've approached it."

Leaving behind No Child Left Behind

Schools are also preparing for Georgia's No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress waiver, submitted in September to the U.S. Department of Education. While the waiver has not been approved yet, school districts are readying parents and students for the coming changes.

No Child Left Behind was designed to ensure all children, especially ethnic and economic minorities, received quality education. Schools were evaluated annually with an Adequate Yearly Progress model that looked at attendance, graduation rates and standardized test scores.

Georgia instead wants to begin the College and Career Ready Performance Index, which will then determine a school's score on achievement, progress and closing the achievement gap. Criteria include test scores, attendance, graduation rate and career and college preparation.

The waiver is based on Georgia House Bills 400 and 186.

HB 400 was implemented in 2010 to counsel students in sixth through eighth grades on career awareness.

By eighth grade, students are expected to have a fully developed individual graduation plan.

HB 186 makes high school a bit more like college, where students choose a career, technical or agricultural education pathway in addition to some core classes. In addition to learning key reading and math concepts, students will also master technical skills to help them succeed in college, the workforce or the military.

The eventual intent is for students to learn both an academic and technical credit from one of these classes. For example, a student in Introduction to Engineering could earn an elective credit plus a math credit.

Essentially the bills are creating a new high school diploma, different from the college or technical preparatory tracks.

"That's passed and sitting there and the expectation is we'll have the career pathways and everything else put into place next fall," Dyer said.

Gainesville High School's governance council is looking at reducing the credits required for graduation from 28 to 24, Dyer said. This will be so students who finish the 24 credits can go on to take dual-enrollment classes or expand their educational opportunities other ways.

She said all freshmen will start next fall with a career pathway.

"We've taken those pathways and customized them to a Gainesville City Schools format. Our parents are looking to us to say, ‘What should we do,'" Dyer said. "We can't say ‘we don't know,' we've got to give them something. As it plays out, we'll merge our documents and everything to what the state eventually comes out to use."


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