Can DeKalb Schools be fixed internally? Superintendent says yes

DeKalb School Superintendent Steve Green’s plan to turn around schools at risk of state takeover under Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District calls for a sharp focus on curriculum, heavy parental involvement and millions of dollars to get top teachers in struggling schools.

Green says he’s seen signs of improvement as his district implements the plan, which includes a team of administrators observing and tweaking the way students are taught in the classroom, providing tutors and mentors for assistance ahead of Georgia Milestones testing and pushing for more parent involvement. Hard data to gauge its success is not yet available, though.

The plan is a contrast to one being pushed by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in Atlanta Public Schools, on the hypothesis that outside groups can do a better job than the local school district at educating black, low-income students. The Atlanta district is hiring charter operators to run some of its struggling schools. Results have been mixed to this point nationally with others doing the same thing. The district is too broken to fix itself by itself, Carstarphen said.

Both approaches aim to turn around schools that have struggled for years.

“We’re in a pretty good space and place with regards to our plan,” Green said. “We have a very rigorous system … and it is firmly embedded in the belief that you inspect what you expect and we’re expecting to see certain things in the classroom.”

Green inherited a district last summer that had rebounded from nearly losing accreditation amid mismanagement and $14 million in debt to having a nearly $90 million surplus. But about two dozen schools were at risk of state takeover under Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District plan, which would let the state take control and, hopefully, transform poorly performing schools across the state. Voters will be asked at the polls in November whether to authorize the OSD.

Green is of the mindset that educators fix education. He tasked administrators and other professionals with addressing the ills at those schools, as well as about three dozen more he felt were on the cusp of finding themselves in the state’s crosshairs.

“We believe the answer to boosting performance lies in a most obvious place — the classroom,” Green said last month in a written commentary. “We see no single, magic answer, just a laser focus on raising the quality of instruction and learning.”

DeKalb school board chairman Melvin Johnson said he sees his district’s plan as meeting the students where they are, and engaging their parents in the process. There’s no better way to ensure success, he said.

“You have to know we have many of our students coming to us not at the baseline from a standpoint of where other students are,” he said. “Many come to us three, four years behind. Some second-graders may not know how to form a sentence. You have to start from where they are. Dr. Green’s assessment, from a standpoint, is to develop a strategy to get them on pace. You can’t start teaching students on the second-grade level and they’re reading and doing math on the pre-K level.”

Green’s plan to eliminate DeKalb schools from the OSD list involves:

• Dispatching teams of administrators and other district professionals to classrooms throughout the school year, to ensure learning is taking place at the right pace and measure the level at which students understand what they’re being taught — and retool curriculum to get student learning up to acceptable standards.

• Teaching teachers how to better reach and teach students. Schools receive support from the district office based on need.

• Bringing in parents to act as liaisons with the community and add to the discussion on what should be done.

• Providing tutors and mentors for the Georgia Milestones test, as well as behavioral experts where needed. Students going to college are afforded specialists to help with the transition.

• Hiring higher-qualified teachers for struggling schools, using Title II funds, if necessary.

• Identifying regional support teams to help address critical needs within a school. University partnerships and other service providers could be utilized to support schools based on need. Teacher assessment and individual student intervention for those found struggling also is available.

• Developing a District Effectiveness Team to meet with the superintendent twice monthly to go over school and districtwide needs on Georgia District Performance Standards and work with the Georgia Department of Education and the Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency to improve schools. Green said feedback from the District Effectiveness Team is one indicator of improvement.

The district already had been showing some improvement. Since 2013, it has seen a 103-point increase in SAT scores, and an 11 percentage point increase in the graduation rate, including an eight-point uptick between 2014 and 2015. It regained full accreditation in January after being on probation most of this decade.

School board member Stan Jester said what’s being done in DeKalb has the potential to work, mostly because it’s being led by Green, who’s proven himself through the work he did to turn around a failing Kansas City Public Schools district.

“I brought in Dr. Green specifically for his ability to turn around failing school districts. He’s done it in the past,” Jester said. “He seems to be pulling out all the stops. He’s really just focusing on improving scores. Do I think that’s going to work? That’s a good question.”

Jester said that with the district headed in a positive direction, “We have no more excuses. If DeKalb Schools can’t turn around our failing schools now, then they should be turned over to the governor’s Opportunity School District.”

Board member Joyce Morley said she sees what’s being done at APS as a modified version of the OSD plan, which she said has failed in large districts across the country.

She said, “We’re going to make sure there’s no schools for them to look at. There doesn’t need to be a takeover. It’s a glorified way to get the taxpayer’s money. Why doesn’t the state take the money they want to use for the state takeover … and use it here to educate the whole?”

Not all schools are excelling, Green admitted. But he’s encouraged by Gov. Deal’s promise that challenging schools where work is being done will be shielded from state takeover.

“As we head into this testing window, well see where things go up, and will be evident of the system we have in place now,” he said. “If there’s a downward trend, you stop that trend and reverse it to go back. We’re making significant gains toward that end. The plan is working according to plan.”

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