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Hall, Gainesville schools honored for closing achievement gap
Systems will receive $50,000 in federal grants
Myers Elementary School third-grade teacher Marilyn Parks works with third-graders during reading intervention as part of their Reading First Program, which helps close the achievement gap among students. Both Hall County and Gainesville school systems were recognized this week for success in closing that gap. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The state Board of Education awarded two of four statewide grants to Hall County and Gainesville school systems in recognition of the systems’ progress in closing the achievement gap between students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not.

Each school system will receive $50,000 in federal Title I Distinguished Districts grant awards. Compared to school districts across the state, Hall County and Gainesville school systems made the greatest gains in the 2007-2008 school year in closing the scoring gap on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test and the Georgia High School Graduation Test. The gap often exists between non-disadvantaged students and those who receive free or reduced lunches.

Hall County schools reduced the economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged student score gap by 6.7 percent. Gainesville schools reduced the gap by 8.6 percent — the largest reduction in the state, according to the state Department of Education.

State schools Superintendent Kathy Cox announced the state’s four Title I Distinguished Districts at the state school board meeting Thursday.

"These districts and schools are a prime example of the impact high expectations, hard work and collaboration can have on student achievement," Cox said in a news release. "I’m thrilled to recognize the educators, students and parents in these schools and school districts."

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, said the school system has been focusing on its economically disadvantaged students, which made up 72 percent of the nearly 6,000 student system in the 2007-2008 school year, according to state No Child Left Behind reports. In Hall County schools, 51 percent of the nearly 26,000 students in the system last school year were economically disadvantaged.

Dyer said in the past few years, Gainesville faculty have been working alongside Hall County faculty to come up with the best ways to address the needs of both systems’ economically disadvantaged students.

She said in past years, Lyman Hall Elementary worked with Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School to devise the best assessment methods and instructional approaches to benefit the impoverished subgroup. More recently, Dyer said Gainesville Exploration Academy teachers have been working with teachers at Myers Elementary School to share ideas and come up with more creative and visually oriented instruction.

Dyer said local colleges and universities also have helped the Gainesville system to develop its approach to teaching economically disadvantaged students.

"I think it’s a fabulous statement about how this community supports education and values it, because you certainly don’t do it alone," she said of both local school systems’ progress and grant awards.

Patty Robinson, director of early literacy and school improvement for Hall County schools, said local teachers now have the assessment tools they need to pinpoint areas of the curriculum with which students are struggling.

"Teachers in our schools are doing a really good job of using data to make instructional decisions for individual students," Robinson said. "... They mold their instruction around what the assessments show students need."

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said the system’s push for rigor is raising the expectations and test scores of all students.

"What we’ve said all along is let’s push for rigorous experiences for each child all along and the basic competency piece will take care of itself," Schofield said. "... We have 50 years of evidence in this country that focusing on remediation and basic skills is a dismal failure. What we believe in Hall County, and we’ve hired people who believe the same, is let’s focus on excellence, and focus on excellence for everyone, including your most fragile and most able (learners)."

Hall County schools won the award for the large school district with more than 10,000 students. Gainesville schools won the award for the medium school district with more than 4,000 students. Mitchell County schools won the award for the small school district, while Evans County schools won the award for the very small school district.

All four school systems will receive the $50,000 grants in upcoming weeks. The grant can be spent on providing monetary awards to principals, teachers and staff, providing resources and instructional supplies or implementing special schoolwide or districtwide projects. The funds cannot be used for capital outlay projects.