Georgia school ‘turnaround’ chief eyes metro Atlanta

Schools in metro Atlanta could be among the next to join Georgia’s new “turnaround” program.

Nearly half of the 104 schools whose performance on the state report card was poor enough to make them eligible for state intervention are in or near Atlanta, and the state is now eyeing the region.

“The data told us, you’ve got to look at Atlanta metro,” said new state Chief Turnaround Officer Eric Thomas, who indicated that he would be eyeing the Augusta and Savannah regions, as well. “That’s where we’re going to be looking sometime this spring for the next set of schools and districts.”

Thomas, hired in November under a new state law, was speaking to state lawmakers at a joint session of their House and Senate education committees Thursday.

In December, he started his portfolio by picking 11 schools in five rural school districts southwest of Atlanta. He said at the time that all of them had asked to be included, welcoming help from the state.

Metro Atlanta districts, by contrast, were not volunteering.

“I actually would rather be left alone,” Fulton County Superintendent Jeff Rose said back in November, when the state released a list showing eight of his schools had performed poorly enough to qualify for state intervention. “I feel really confident that we’re going to be able to do for ourselves what the state is going to try to do to support schools.”

At that time, Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, also seemed unenthusiastic about state involvement in any of her 16 listed schools. “I’m glad that the state is doing what they’re doing but we’ve already started our process,” she’d said.

Her desire to remain independent hadn’t changed by Friday when, during a general meeting with Atlanta legislators, Carstarphen said there were gains at 15 of her 16 schools that are struggling the most. She credited the district’s turnaround strategy for the rise in performance, and said Thomas was well aware of it.

“We also know that even though he has all the authority in the world to tap into APS, our chief turnaround officer has come to see the work in Atlanta Public Schools, and he agrees that we have a plan that is starting to work,” she told the lawmakers.

Rose in Fulton noted that last year the district had 14 schools eligible for state takeover and said a “focused effort” by the district had improved six enough to get them off the list.

“While we recognize that we still have schools that are not performing to our standards, the progress we have made is evidence that we are on the right path and should be allowed to continue addressing these issues without state intervention,” the Fulton superintendent said.

DeKalb County issued a statement Friday that said nine of its 16 schools on the list are within three points of being removed. “We have demonstrated our capability as a school district to implement best practices that lead to increased and sustainable progress,” Superintendent Steve Green said, “and we strongly believe we will continue along this path.”

The removal of schools from the list is in part because the nature of the list itself changed. Prior to this year, schools earned the designation “chronically failing” by scoring less than 60 points for three years in a row on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the annual school report card produced by the Georgia Department of Education.

The failing list and the criteria behind it were designed for a state receivership program called the Opportunity School District that voters rejected in November 2016. The list used now was adopted under a law passed last year. The First Priority Act list is also based on the school report card but is calculated in a different way, targeting schools with scores averaging in the bottom 5 percent over three years.

Any school with a report card score of 54 or better escaped the list this year, and the size of the list shrank by 49 schools.

Thomas is supposed to work with schools to analyze what is driving their low scores and develop improvement strategies. But it’s up to the school districts to implement them effectively.

Under the new law, if the chosen schools do not improve after three years, they can be removed from district control. Thomas has stressed that he wants to help local officials avoid that, and in November told his bosses on the state Board of Education that he sought volunteers in the first round because he didn’t want to start off with fighting, though he told them, “We may have some later.”

When Thomas revealed his first 11 schools in November, Mike Royal, who was chairman of the state education board, said the absence of metro Atlanta districts was intentional. Since the turnaround program is brand new and basically an experiment, he said, conflict would have been counterproductive.

“There is no one who is fighting mad, saying ‘no, you’re not taking our schools,’ ” he said of the first batch of schools, which were mainly in southwest Georgia. He added, though: “This is just the first cohort.”

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