The incessant political chatter over education policy — charters, Common Core, more money, less government intrusion — sometimes drowns out some of the success that is occurring in our local schools.
Sure, there is a big picture to education that can’t be ignored. Budgets remain a challenge in a time when tax revenue has fallen and schools face greater challenges from rising student populations. The debate over testing and curriculums are vital to determining how to teach and evaluate students.
But let’s take a few minutes to salute some of the accomplishments seen in local classrooms, where teachers and students are forming the kind of connections that make education valuable.
Two Hall County schools recently were awarded for their efforts.
Sugar Hill Elementary School was announced as a National Blue Ribbon School last week by the U.S. Department of Education. It is the first Hall County school to be so recognized in the program’s 31-year history, one of nine in Georgia and 286 nationwide this year.
School representatives will be honored at a ceremony Nov. 19 in Washington. They will receive a plaque and flag with the official Blue Ribbon School seal.
The Blue Ribbon program recognizes public and private schools where students perform at high levels and improvements are being made in their academic progress.
This is despite the challenge Sugar Hill faces from a high population of Latino students, many of whom are still learning English. Eighty percent of the school’s students are Latino, and 40 percent come from low-income families, with 92 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
Despite these challenges many attribute to low levels of learning, look what Sugar Hill has accomplished: Reading scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests saw 90 percent of its third- and fourth-graders meeting or exceeding standards; fifth-graders scoring at that level were at 88.6 percent; math scores were 75.9 percent for third-graders, 88.7 for fourth-graders and 89.7 percent for fifth-graders.
Principal Beth Skarda credits much of this progress to the school’s tutoring program. Students who arrive early before classes begin receive specific instruction on math and reading, tailored to their needs. This extra effort requires a strong commitment from teachers, students and parents.
Another Hall school honored recently was Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy, which earned the 2013 School Bell Award from the Georgia Association of Elementary School Principals. The award goes to schools that find new and effective ways to teach.
At Wauka Mountain, Principal Jo Dinnan and her staff provide elective classes in music, arts, foreign languages and other specific areas of instruction. These classes create more rounded, better-prepared students who can use such learning either as a foundation for future careers or a springboard to other disciplines.
A Gainesville school also has earned impressive kudos. State Superintendent John Barge recently visited Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy to present its Family-Friendly Partnership School award. Enota was one of four Georgia Title 1 schools so honored, the award based on customer service provided by school staff to students and parents.
Enota was cited for its outreach efforts by holding events for parents, scheduling tours and encouraging attendance and literacy in the community.
“We’ve turned our school into a village,” Enota Assistant Principal Jennifer Westbrook told Barge.
This is not to say challenges don’t remain. SAT scores released last week showed that local systems’ scores dropped a bit. Hall still remains in the top one-third among state school districts, and with more students now taking the test. Gainesville also encourages more students to take part, and both systems offer SAT preparatory courses.
Statewide, Georgia ranks ninth in the nation in test participation and shows an increased percentage of minority students taking part. That’s an important factor to note; while increased numbers of test-takers can lower scores in the short term, it shows the willingness of those students to pursue higher education, which is a positive sign.
You won’t find future dropouts or failing students willing to get up early on a Saturday and sit in the cafeteria to fill in test bubbles. Kids who make that effort care about their futures, and that will pay off for them and their schools.
The long-term hope is that strides being made at the primary school level will carry over to better high school student achievement, leading to higher SAT scores and graduation rates. Laying that foundation is vital to keeping more students pursuing a path toward a diploma and an education beyond K-12.
Whatever challenges our schools face, we can rest easier knowing the commitment for improvement starts at the top. Superintendents Will Schofield and Merrianne Dyer and their staffs are focused on improving classroom performance, and this trickles down to each school’s leadership and faculty.
We should never stop striving to improve education through better policy and funding. But let’s not get so wrapped up in those issues that we forget to acknowledge the tangible signs of success in our public schools. Their efforts make the future look brighter for us all.