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Validity of test scores at crux of local opinion on school amendment
Ballot proposal would allow state to intervene when schools repeatedly fail index
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Janiyah Grimes, 9, and NéSean Dorsey, 8, read books along with their class Friday at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School in Gainesville. Each Fair Street Student has a reading lesson every day with his or her class. - photo by Erin O. Smith

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A referendum that would allow the state to take over failing schools doesn’t get much attention in local schools, according to principals and superintendents.

Georgia voters will consider Nov. 8 whether to approve an Opportunity School District, giving the governor authority to appoint a superintendent to take control of failing schools, those that have scored below 60 on the state’s College and Career Performance Index for three consecutive years. CCRPI scores are based in part on students’ scores on Milestones and End of Course tests.

Early voting begins Monday.

The Georgia Milestones test is “a one-day event,” said Will Campbell, principal at Fair Street School in Gainesville. Fair Street scored below 60 for the past two years.

He said meeting the students where they are as individuals is critical to learning.

Campbell said the amendment is mostly political and “doesn’t have a lot to do with kids.”

Fair Street if focusing on a new literacy framework this year and its “audacious” goal of improving every child’s reading by three grade levels in the next two years.

“We have seen amazing results so far,” Campbell said.

State Sen. Butch Miller of Gainesville, who sponsored the amendment in the Senate, said the state “has got to do something” because of the number of schools with problems.

This plan, he said, provides options including local and state officials sharing leadership duties, the state establishing a new, nonprofit charter school and the possibility of closing a school and sending students to other public schools instead.

He emphasized that schools that might come under state control “have failed for years.”

“Over time, my philosophy has been to be a supporter of public education,” Miller said, but he also added all Georgia students “no matter their circumstances deserve an opportunity at a quality education.”

In 2015, four Hall schools and one Gainesville school scored below 60 on the CCRPI: Chicopee Woods, 59.1; Lyman Hall, 53.3; Tadmore, 58; White Sulphur, 56.6; and Fair Street, 50.9. None have fallen below 60 for three years.

Scroll over the chart to find local schools' data. 

Under the proposal, a school with two straight years under 60 could be put on probation and one year could put the school on warning.

Betsy Ainsworth, principal at White Sulphur Elementary School emphasized daily relationships with students over test scores.

“We try to keep it about the kids. You focus on the kids who walk through your door,” Betsy Ainsworth said.

“You try to move them as individuals,” she said.

Ainsworth said White Sulphur has “data chats” twice a month and teachers look at all information from grade level to individual student. She added, “That’s just one measure.”

“We don’t want everything to be about Milestones,” Ainsworth said. “We want them to love class, to love learning.

“We have frequent conversations about data, but it’s not the only measure of success.”

She noted the school’s poverty level is a factor in learning.

“It’s almost like you’re an investigator,” she said. “Why is that child not progressing?”

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County Schools, noted he expects the county to eventually have schools considered to be failing.

“You cannot have schools serving transient, poverty, first-generation immigrant families and not think you will eventually get three years of negative data. It is going to happen,” he said.

In the four Hall schools that failed in 2015, 93 percent to 95 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, which is an indicator of poverty. Fair Street had 88.37 percent of its students on free and reduced-price lunches.

Each school also has a high number of students whose first language isn’t English.

Schofield said if the amendment passes, he expects decisions about which schools will be “taken over” to “be made in context and with a full appreciation of a school district’s past resolve to continually improve all of (its) schools.”

“The status quo is not an option,” he said, adding “anybody who says this is an easy issue has never worked in these schools. There is no right or wrong (answer).”

He also said, “I won’t try to defend a generation of inaction when it comes to schools that chronically underperform their peers,” explaining his view of statewide problems.

The Hall superintendent said he supports the Opportunity School District “not because I believe it is a silver bullet to fix failing schools, but because it forces those of us in educational leadership positions to confront the issue of ‘radical’ underperformance.”

But Schofield said his focus is local: “I haven’t been fixated on this Opportunity School District issue. I continue to spend 99 percent of my time and effort on this sandbox called the Hall County school system.”

Wanda Creel, Gainesville superintendent, said she is certain Deal’s intention is to “help schools be the best they can be for all children.”

But she added, “I’m not certain that the Opportunity School District, as it is currently proposed, is the way to build capacity at a local or state level.”

She explained that building that capacity may require more specific instruction for teachers.

That does not necessarily require a constitutional amendment or a superintendent, Creel said. The state has authority to do that work now.

She said professional learning is a key to learning “how we can meet the individual needs of students.”

Creel also noted that finding teachers and leaders for schools is more difficult that in was 10 or 15 years ago. Part of that, she said, may be due to a loss of respect for teachers.

Finally, she said, local communities are better for “making connections” between students and schools than state officials, who are removed from the community. She noted that Gainesville is known for the way it “wraps (its) arms around” the schools and helps in myriad ways.

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