The Georgia Department of Education (GDOE) recently released its list of schools that need improvement and 19 DeKalb County School District schools are among those named.
The “needs improvement” schools fall into two categories under the new rating system GDOE has implemented as an alternative after being granted a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB)—focus and priority schools.
Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for GDOE, said the priority schools list is made up of the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools in the state. Cardoza said each school is designated a priority school based on achievement data, graduation rates and whether the school receives a federal school improvement grant (SIG).
Cardoza said if a school is receiving a SIG, it is automatically placed on the list. Additionally, he said schools with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent over the past two years are also included.
Among the nine priority schools listed are Indian Creek and Toney elementaries, and McNair and Towers high schools. David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, said each of the schools mentioned had its own unique problems.
“Indian Creek Elementary is a huge refugee school, so you really have to drill down into the test scores to find out why it has been labeled a priority school. But I imagine a lot of the children haven’t been in the country very long,” Schutten said.
Schutten said in Indian Creek’s case, the school may not have the resources to deal with the large refugee population and the difficulties of teaching so many students who come from different backgrounds, and probably speak different languages.
The focus schools include Martin Luther King Jr. High School, Flat Rock, Princeton and Stone Mill elementary schools, and Lithonia and Columbia middle schools.
Cardoza said focus schools are much different from priority schools. He said focus schools are identified from the lowest achieving 10 percent of all schools in the state. Each focus school falls into two categories: it has a graduation rate of less than 60 percent over the past two years or has the largest “in school gap” between the highest achieving subgroup and the lowest achieving subgroup.
“If you don’t capture some schools on the priority list then you would get them on the focus schools list,” Cardoza said.
DeKalb County Board of Education member Nancy Jester said she is happy to see the state’s involvement in failing schools. Jester said she is optimistic about the state’s waiver to NCLB because, although “well-intentioned,” the law didn’t do enough to fix failing schools.
Jester said she believes in school choice, which allows children to move from a “needs improvement” school in their district to a more successful one outside of the district. However, she said it didn’t do much to help those schools that needed improvement.
“We need other resources to fix this,” Jester said. “NCLB laid bare the problems and I’m thankful for that, but it didn’t fix or address the problems with failing schools. I’m hoping the state will have those perspectives and hopefully it can come up with a way to fix the problem.”
Many of the schools listed as focus and priority schools come from areas with a high poverty rate. Schutten said in many cases parental involvement is also an issue. He said children need what they learn at school to be reinforced at home, and that isn’t happening in some cases.
“Part of the issue is a lot of children don’t get the basics down, and we’re doing the same thing and it’s not working. We need to make sure they have the basics before going to high school and we really need to get the parents more involved,” Schutten said.
The new performance index implemented by the GDOE has benchmarks that make sure a child doesn’t move to a new grade before he or she is ready.
“What I’m looking for is a follow through by the state department and DeKalb County School District,” Schutten said.
Jester said she would be looking to the “needs improvement” schools for steady, incremental growth over the next year.
“I’m hoping that the state focus on these schools is going to produce more positive work,” Jester said.