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Georgia once led, now lags in education innovation

John Campbell, principal of Gwinnett County’s new Discovery High School, had a question for his two adult children one day: “What could we have done in high school to better prepare you for your experience at (the University of) Georgia?”

Neither had taken a single business class in high school, said Campbell. “No room in the schedule.”

Many say Georgia schools have not focused on the life and work skills students need to join the middle class. Once a national leader in education initiatives, the state today is in the middle of the pack, or lower, in categories like graduation rates. And the educational requirements for good jobs continue to grow.

In five years, more than 60 percent of the available jobs will require some type of education beyond high school, which most Georgians are not obtaining.

That’s not a hopeful sign. As Michael Thurmond, a former state Labor Department commissioner and former DeKalb County school superintendent, said, “Ultimately, our K-12 system is where you build your workforce if you have any hope of being prosperous and profitable.”

Several dozen interviews with local and national education experts suggest many Georgia school districts often lack innovative approaches to prepare students for life after high school or college.

Campbell said programs at Discovery High, which opened last month, came about because Gwinnett school system officials “turned us loose” to come up with ideas to produce more students who are college and career-ready. Discovery has four academies that allow students to study careers that interest them, including one geared toward business and entrepreneurship.

“In some school districts, this might have been stopped,” Campbell said, because of reluctance to do things in new ways.

That wasn’t always characteristic of Georgia. It pioneered universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds regardless of family income, and its HOPE scholarship program for college students became a model that others copied.

Now, five states and Washington, D.C. have a higher percentage of four-year-olds in pre-k. “It really hasn’t been augmented,” Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said. “We’re not leading the pack anymore.”

And for HOPE, lottery revenues slowed, a recession occurred, tuition rose and eligibility was tightened. Today, only about one-third of students in the state’s public college and university system receive the scholarship, and more than one-third lose it after the first year, according to data from the University System of Georgia. As college costs continue to rise, so does Georgians’ student loan debt, which hobbles the economy.

“A college degree is more important than ever, yet it may be priced out of reach for many students,” said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“HOPE was a national leader and looks to have had positive effects, but it hasn’t been enough,” said Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Some other places have taken leads in classroom innovation. Houston is one. All Houston high schools offer at least 15 Advanced Placement courses and have a program, funded by a charitable foundation, to help high-achieving students – many of them low-income – get into Ivy League and other top-tier colleges.

Nashville has become a destination for educators seeking to learn more about its academies, which partner with businesses to teach courses. Campbell, the Gwinnett principal, planned a trip to Nashville to review the program.

Another challenge for Georgia, as Carnevale noted: Opportunity isn’t equal across the state. “Outside Atlanta there are places where no employer is going to move because they don’t have the workforce, and they don’t have the workforce because they don’t have the jobs. For a governor this is a tough problem.”

Disparity between affluent and poor areas also shows up in student achievement data, but Georgia hasn’t changed its main school funding formula in decades. Deal vowed during his re-election campaign in 2014 to fix it but delayed the task after pushback from state lawmakers asked to find a solution.

Frequent personnel changes in education can be another obstacle to implementing changes. DeKalb County has had five superintendents in the past decade. Clayton County has had six, including two interim superintendents, during the same time span. Between 1997 and 2011, Fulton County had seven superintendents.

Still, business leaders say the state’s reputation as pioneering some education programs remains a selling point.

When the Georgia Chamber of Commerce recruits companies, “We talk a lot about pre-K and HOPE,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO. “We always lead with our University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. They are the envy of the nation.”

Also, Georgia’s QuickStart job training program offers qualified companies free employee training through the technical college system. Companies from Caterpillar to Kia and Toyo Tire have benefited, and with the tech college ties have had a ready-made pipeline of trained students as potential employees.

Last week state leaders attended the opening of the $14 million Georgia BioScience Training Center near Social Circle to train workers at the Baxalta pharmaceutical plant nearby.

Still, if Georgia doesn’t make strides as places like Houston and Nashville,companies with jobs to bring are more likely to bypass it.

“The competition is fierce for economic development, and without a skilled and educated workforce, the future will not be bright for any state that does not do that,” said Ron Jackson, former commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia. “Staying the course will always be the challenge.”

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