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Three local schools removed from state list of low-performing schools
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Deasha Pasual, 9, and Alondra Ruiz, 9, play a learning game on their computers at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville. Centennial is one of three schools no longer designated as “focus” schools, meaning low-performing, by the state. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Three local schools were among 74 schools removed from a low-performing list by the state Tuesday.

Centennial Arts Academy, a Gainesville elementary school, as well as two Hall County schools — White Sulphur and Lyman Hall elementary schools — were taken off the “focus” list of the Georgia Department of Education, which is right above the lowest-performing “priority” schools. No local schools remain on the list.

Leslie Frierson had only been principal of Centennial Arts Academy for a month in July 2015 when her new school was designated as a focus school by the Georgia Department of Education for underperformance in achievement gap data.

“It was disheartening; it was,” Frierson said Tuesday. “We all were sad about that. We know the great teaching that happens in our building on a daily basis, and we know that being on that list was not a reflection of what we do each day. We buckled down to make sure we were setting the record straight and making things successful for our students.”

The state was required to identify priority and focus schools as part of Georgia’s waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which granted flexibility to some provisions of the No Child Left Behind federal law, according to a statement released by the the state Department of Education.

The statement said priority schools included the lowest performing 5 percent of Title 1 schools, based on achievement data as well as schools with a graduation rate under 60 percent two years in a row. Focus schools received their designation for scoring in the bottom 10 percent in achievement gap data, which looks at the school’s lowest-performing 25 percent of students against the state average and how much the gap is closing.

All three local schools came off the list a year earlier than the originally projected three-year process.

“We are very, very excited to have come off a year early,” Frierson said. “The school has worked together to address the deficits that we had with our students, to look for ways to make sure that our students are achieving at the same level as their peers across the state, making sure that we are providing them with rich experiences so they can be successful, and it’s happening.”

Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville City Schools, praised Centennial’s work to exit from focus status.

“The concentrated efforts of the administration, teachers, staff members and families have been vital over the past few years,” Bell said. “Specific actions such as targeted professional development and utilization of expertise in the building have been crucial to this effort, but ultimately, it is the teamwork that has been displayed that has led to success.”

At White Sulphur, Principal Betsy Ainsworth said school officials are “thrilled” to come off the focus designation.

“I think it’s really important we spend a lot of time working on meeting kids where they are and growing them as learners, not the idea that one size fits all,” she said. “I think building relationships and loving our kids has a lot to do with it. Our kids want to work hard when they know we’re all about their success.”

Ainsworth’s voice broke a little when talking about the fact that no local schools remained on the state priority or focus list.

“It’s good all around,” she said.

She attributed her school’s success to commitment of the staff and students and additional resources made available from the state Department of Education.

“In any school that you’re in, it’s always about growth and improvement,” Ainsworth said. “I think it gave (the school) some extra support to move forward, and we’ve really done that. School improvement specialists have worked closely with us. The state gives you some additional monetary resources with stipulations, of course. We put that in a very focused way to grow our kids.”

Lyman Hall Principal Robert Wilson said Tuesday was a proud day for his faculty, staff and students.

“With the data they were using, the population that we had being 99 percent Hispanic, and being able to show the growth that we have shown to get outside of the bottom 10 percent, we’re just ecstatic,” he said.

Wilson said the school began improvement efforts prior to the focus school designation in 2015.

“They used data from almost three years prior; it was lagging data,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to turn this ship around in a year or two. We had to put in practices that will carry through with the students from the time they’re in kindergarten to the time they begin testing in third, fourth and fifth grade. We knew it was a process, so just staying with the process was probably the biggest thing that we did.”

Kevin Bales, Hall County assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, also added his praise for the work of the two county schools.

“We’re tickled to death for the accomplishments of those students and those staffs,” he said. “Behind the scenes, we’ve seen the data steadily improve for the last two to three years, so I really can’t say I’m shocked. We’re just excited the rest of the state received the news as well. We work hard and continue to give the best educational experiences to our kids we can and help them be successful in all that they do and not just school, but also as lifelong learners.”