There is no doubt that the stigma of having almost 20 public schools labeled as “chronically failing” has hurt Richmond County.
Over the past decade, new residents moving into the area with school-age children have flooded into surrounding counties rather than gambling on their child’s future with the Richmond County school system.
But Augusta is far from alone in its struggles.
As a result, Deal has proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would allow the state to create an “Opportunity School District” based on similar initiatives in states such as Louisiana and Tennessee.
If Deal’s referendum is approved by voters in November, these districts would authorize the state to temporarily take control of chronically failing public schools across the state.
“While Georgia boasts many schools that achieve academic excellence every year, we still have too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education,” Deal said while announcing the proposal last year. “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children. Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next. Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle.”
In the governor’s proposal, persistently failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education’s accountability measure, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index, for three consecutive years.
The OSD would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time.
Under the governor’s plan, schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years, and would then return to local control.
The General Assembly passed the constitutional amendment resolution and the implementing legislation during the 2015 legislative session.
But it now requires a majority approval by Georgia voters in the November general election and Deal seems determined to get the referendum passed.
“When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children,” Deal recently said. “I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”
The only problem is that the wording of the November referendum has been described by critics as being misleading to voters because it includes the phrase that the new legislation is “to help your child be a better student.”
The plan would actually allow the state to have total authority over the failing schools in the special district and it could remove principals, teachers, completely change the curriculum and take control of the schools’ budgets.
But the governor’s office is clearly working hard to put a positive spin on the proposed referendum by describing it as a way the state can “step in to help rejuvenate failing public schools and rescue children languishing in them.”
“The Opportunity School District will allow us to bring new focus by education experts, better governance and best practices to schools that have underachieved for too long,” Deal recently said. “The children trapped in these schools can’t wait.”
Currently, Richmond County has 19 schools in the failing category regarding scores on the state Department of Education’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index.
Those schools that fall into the failing category include Bayvale Elementary School, Butler High School, Diamond Lakes Elementary School, Glenn Hills Elementary School, Glenn Hills High School, Glenn Hills Middle School, Hains Elementary School, Jamestown Elementary School, Jenkins-White Elementary Charter School, Josey High School, Lamar-Milledge Elementary School, Meadowbrook Elementary School, Murphey Middle Charter School, Sego Middle School, Spirit Creek Middle School, Terrace Manor Elementary School, W.S. Hornsby K-8 School, Wheeless Road Elementary School and Wilkinson Gardens Elementary School.
Deal insists the Opportunity School District plan will help turn these local schools around.
“There are many excuses that will be offered for why schools are failing — the students come from families in poverty, their parents are dysfunctional, they don’t care because they have no hope,” Deal said during his State of the State address last year. “Let’s stop making excuses — If we want to break the cycle of poverty, let’s educate those children so that they have the skills to escape poverty, if we want to interrupt the cycle of dysfunctional families, let’s educate the children in those homes so that their families of the future will return to normalcy; if we want our young people to have hope, let’s give them the greatest beacon of hope we can confer on them — a quality education that leads to a good job, a stable family and the stairway to the future.”
However, many members of the Richmond County Board of Education have deep concerns about the governor’s proposal because they believe it provides the state too much power without any real local input.
“The citizens and the people who are responsible for the education in the system locally would not have a voice in it,” said Marion Barnes, the vice president of the Richmond County School Board. “We always talk about the problems with state control and federal control. Well, they are taking local control away from us — the citizens.”
Barnes believes the referendum is so vague that voters won’t understand the governor’s proposal when they head to the polls in November.
“The referendum doesn’t explain to you how it is going to be done and what the real implications are with letting the state come in and make sweeping changes,” Barnes said. “I mean, if the governor has a cure for the problems in education, why doesn’t he give it to us and let us do it ourselves? What magical potion does he have that we don’t have?”
School Board President Helen Minchew believes there are too many unknowns regarding the governor’s proposal and it could, in the end, do much more harm than good.
“With a constitutional amendment, it would not be easy to reverse,” Minchew said, adding that, if the referendum passes, future changes would be in the state’s hands. “There would be very limited involvement by the local board as well as parents and the community of the school as to the operation and organization of the school. A OSD superintendent would be appointed by the governor and would have the power to determine which schools come under OSD, the reorganization and replacement of staff at the school, the possible closing of the school, transfer the school to the State Charter Schools Commission or have the local school board enter into a contract with some organization to operate the school.”
Minchew has seen first-hand the issues teachers and administrators face in these Richmond County schools that are deemed “failing” by the state and she insists there is no easy solution.
“We have kids in these schools who move four times in a year because of challenges they face at home,” Minchew said. “These teachers will work with them and get them to a certain point and, all of a sudden, they move again and start over in another school with a new teacher. I mean, you can’t control what goes on in their home lives. And so many of these schools that could qualify under OSD are in the poorest neighborhoods. You can’t expect these students to learn and achieve if they are hungry or if they are worried about having a place to stay that night. I just don’t know what the state could do differently.”
But Minchew does believe that the thought of the state being able to take over some local failing schools will definitely hurt the morale of the local educators facing these tough challenges every day.
“The teachers have to encounter quite a bit on a daily basis and, with this proposal, to think that they might be replaced at any time by the state, I think is wrong,” Minchew said. “It will get to the point that these teachers will feel like they have to move and try to go to a better performing school because they may lose their jobs.”
In the end, Minchew fears that the OSD plan will simply create “more bureaucracy” and cost local taxpayers a great deal of money down the road.
“There is just so much that voters don’t know,” Minchew said. “Voters need to know what is all involved in this plan because, the way the referendum is written, it wants to pull everybody in to support this.”
But there are serious consequences included in Deal’s proposal if OSD chooses to take over a school, Minchew said.
“If the school is closed, it cannot be used by the local board as a school for three years,” she said. “The OSD can contract out any maintenance and repairs of the school building, but the local board will continue to be responsible for major repairs. In addition to controlling the facility, acquired assets such as textbooks, technology and other instructional equipment would be under the discretion of the OSD superintendent.”
Minchew insists the local school board has tried to take advantage of any form of assistance or help from the state to help improve these failing schools.
“We are in the process of implementing the Strategic Waivers School System contract for this school year which grants flexibility options based on school improvement plans for each school in the district,” Minchew said. “This was a requirement of the state for each district to choose from three options, and this is just beginning to be in operation.”
Richmond County has also implemented the governor’s programs to promote literacy in elementary schools and the board has extended summer school to more students to help improve their skills over the summer, she said.
As a result of some of these programs, Minchew said the graduation rates are up for each high school in Richmond County.
“Our graduation average now is only one point behind the state average,” she said. “Our Performance Learning Center has assisted students toward graduation and partnerships with many community organizations, such as Communities in Schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, as well as numerous businesses and companies have also assisted students in academic achievements.”
Minchew is also proud of the school system’s partnership with Textron to implement the program, “Reaching Potential through Manufacturing,” that will be implemented this school year.
“Many of our schools achieved improvement on the CCRPI, which is the basis of eligibility for OSD, even though I might add it has been revised several times since being implemented,” she said, adding that the local school system has made these strides over the past few years despite the budgetary funding cuts by the state. “It has only been recently that furlough days have been eliminated as the result of a decrease in the amount of austerity cuts by the state. These have occurred since 2002 for all school districts, ours totaling $184 million since then.”
School Board member Venus Cain said she has a hard time listening to the governor constantly talk about education reform without really looking at the programs currently in place.
“Nobody looks at the fact that the state has changed the math curriculum just about every year I’ve been on the board. They change the curriculum with no training for teachers on how they are supposed to deliver the math that they claim they want us to teach,” Cain said. “The state also took out cursive handwriting. They took it out of the schools and now we have generations of children who cannot sign their name. To me, that’s appalling.”
If the curriculum and the state’s education plan are constantly changing, schools don’t have a chance to properly improve, Cain said.
“The program that they had in place before the CCRPI, they really didn’t give it a chance to work before they came up with something else that a bunch of bright-eyed people, who don’t teach in the classrooms and are so far from reality, decided we should implement,” Cain said. “The state doesn’t realize what the administrators and teachers have to deal with each day.”
The state is setting teachers up to fail by constantly changing the guidelines in the classroom, she said.
“Teachers are no longer able to just teach,” Cain said. “They are teachers, counselors, mothers, fathers, babysitters, cooks and nurses. And now the state is holding teachers 100 percent accountable for educating children. Teachers can’t be held 100 percent accountable on their evaluations for educating a child because the parent has a part in that as well.”
The state is creating a situation that will soon drive out all the highly qualified and motivated teachers in Richmond County, Cain said.
“If these education shenanigans continue, I think they are going to find it very difficult to get teachers to come into the field and want to be teachers,” Cain said. “After all, the pay is low, the teachers are being held 100 percent accountable for a child’s education and they have to deal with disrespectful children and disrespectful parents.”
It is disheartening to watch the state attempt to mandate changes without seeking local input, Cain said.
“What I have come to realize is education has become a pimp,” Cain bluntly said. “It is a money-making venture, where the latest and the newest thing that is out there, someone throws it out without knowing if it really works. But it sounds good and they get the state to buy into it.”
It becomes impossible for the teachers and faculty at these failing schools to meet the state standards, Cain said.
“I know for a fact in Richmond County that we have some teachers and principals who are really busting their rear-ends to make it happen for these children,” she said. “They are really working hard. And for the state to constantly tell these teachers and the students, ‘You are a failure,’ is terrible. It is a systematic teardown of the public education system.”
School Board member Jack Padgett and his wife, Barbara, have been working to improve Richmond County schools since the early 1980s.
He fully understands the challenges these local schools face throughout Richmond County.
“We’ve had a number of schools improve this past year, but the sad thing about it is there are about 15 of the schools that really haven’t,” he said. “I really don’t see how the state is going to take those same schools and vastly improve them. No matter what staff you put in them, you still have to have the parents and the kids interested in going to school. And, in all the years of being involved in the education field, I haven’t found a solution for that. It’s a tough situation.”
Over the years, Padgett said he has seen outstanding principals being transferred to failing schools and, after a few years, they leave without much success.
“I’ve seen some incredible principals go in who have everything going for them as far as changing the attitude of the students and they totally strike out,” Padgett said. “Really it is easy to blame the parents, but then when you see the parents are struggling to stay above board and they are having to work two or three jobs, they just don’t have the time to give the children the attention they need. They leave one job and go straight to another job, so they really don’t have the time to go to meetings with the teachers and principals.”
The lack of parental support within the school system is a big issue that Padgett believes the state won’t be able to change.
“Basically, how can the state operate any differently than the county does with a superintendent sitting in Atlanta with no direct contact with the schools themselves?” Padgett asked. “It just doesn’t make sense. And I believe if this referendum was put to the voters in a way that voters could understand it, I’m not so sure that voters would support it.”
But the state worded the November referendum in such a way that uninformed voters will support it without researching the proposed changes, he said.
“Basically, the state will take over the operations at the county’s expense, but the referendum doesn’t say that,” Padgett said. “The wording is totally incorrect as to what it actually does. But, of course, it’s not unusual when the state wants to pass something that they word it so it will sound good to everybody.”
However, teachers and administrators are deeply aware of what the governor’s proposal could mean for these local failing schools.
“It is really hurting the teachers and schools because I think they are looking at this and saying, ‘No matter what I do, we are going to be taken over anyway. And I don’t know if I’ll have a job or if they are going to close the school or what,’” Padgett said. “But the teachers have contracts with the school system and if the state decides to put a new staff in, they are still employees of the school system and they are still under contract. So, then the question becomes, what do we do with all those teachers? It is kind of a no-win situation.”
There is no “magic button” the governor will be able to push to erase some of the serious challenges facing many Richmond County students, Padgett said.
“That, to me, is very sad because I grew up very, very poor and probably got ahead in life mainly through the educational church system,” Padgett said. “I was able to turn things around. My oldest sister was actually the valedictorian in high school. I would not consider my background that different than some of these students. I mean, I had caring parents and all, but they weren’t well educated. But over the years, people made a real difference in my life. Teachers made a real difference. Principals made a real difference.”
For that reason, Padgett insists he doesn’t support the governor’s proposal because he finds it “very misleading.”
“Literally, the way this proposal is actually written, the state can do anything it wants to and we have to pay all the bills,” Padgett said. “And let’s face it, I certainly wouldn’t be serving on the board if I thought we weren’t doing something that could help out the teachers and students. We are doing everything we can.”