Georgia low-performing schools selected for “turnaround”

Updated Dec 06, 2017

The first Georgia “turnaround” schools have been identified for special state attention, and none are in metro Atlanta. 

The 11 schools picked by the state’s first Chief Turnaround Office, Eric Thomas, are mostly in rural South Georgia, where poverty is high and districts lack the financial wherewithal of big urban systems. 

Thomas said these schools — in Bibb, Clay, Dooly, Dougherty and Randolph counties — invited him in, since he can bring some state resources to bear on problems that seem to be driving the low performance on standardized state tests. 

The schools were targeted for intervention under The First Priority Act, a new state law that requires participating school districts to improve their schools or face loss of control over them. The General Assembly passed it this year after voters rejected a constitutional amendment last year that would have created a state-run “Opportunity School District” with unilateral authority to seize “chronically failing” schools. 

The new law requires buy-in from local school districts, but school leaders face consequences for refusing to allow intervention. Nearly all of Georgia’s 180 school districts have contracts with the state that allow them to waive mandates for things like minimum salaries and class sizes in exchange for academic results. They could lose those money-saving waivers by rejecting state intervention. 

Nonetheless, Thomas said he didn’t want to “force a marriage” with a district that didn’t want state help, so he sought only volunteers this time. 

A school board member in one of the targeted districts expressed surprise by Wednesday’s announcement. Daryl J. Morton, on the Bibb County school board, said Bibb, still recovering from the Great Recession, wanted to partner with anyone who could help the district improve educational results. “We want to cooperate and leverage as many resources as we can,” he said 

But Morton, who is president of the board, said his superintendent was still discussing the matter with the targeted school principals, and that the school board, which would have to vote to participate, hadn’t discussed it yet. 

“To my knowledge, no formal decision has been made,” Morton said. 

Thomas reports to the Georgia Board of Education, and its chairman, Mike Royal, said the absence of metro Atlanta districts was intentional. They have enough resources on their own, and none wanted to participate. And since the turnaround program is brand new and basically an experiment, Royal said conflict would have been counterproductive. 

“There is no one who is fighting mad, saying ‘no, you’re not taking our schools,’ ” he said, adding, “This is just the first cohort.” 

Thomas picked the 11 schools from a list of 104 that were eligible based on persistently low scores on the Georgia Department of Education’s school report card, the test-based College and Career Ready Performance Index. Forty-one of the lowest-scoring schools are in metro Atlanta — 16 each in Atlanta and DeKalb County, eight in Fulton County and one in Clayton County. 

Thomas, hired last month after a national search, said he narrowed his list based on a broad set of criteria including measures of health. Rates of asthma and premature births have been linked to poor academic performance, so he took those into consideration. He also looked at school indicators such as student absenteeism and teacher turnover rates. 

Within the next month, Thomas will work with the selected districts to pick consultants who will analyze why their schools are performing poorly. Then, he’ll help devise “turnaround” plans. Failure to fulfill the plans over the next few years could bring consequences including wholesale replacement of teachers and principals and transferal of school control to a nonprofit or another district. 

Thomas said he plans to expand the number of schools in the program as soon as the spring, when he will target a second group.

The schools in this first round are:

The AJC's Ty Tagami keeps you updated on the latest in Georgia education. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

Never miss a minute of what's happening with education in Georgia. Subscribe to myAJC.com, the subscriber website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.