ATLANTA – Before diving headlong into a plan to help all 100+ schools in need of academic intervention, the state’s chief turnaround officer is starting with a handful of schools to pilot the First Priority Act program.
Eric Thomas, the longtime educator newly hired to the post, outlined his vision for under-performing schools at a Jan. 5 education symposium hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
“It’s not our vision to turn around schools by removing leaders and staff, [which was] the old way of thinking,” said Thomas, a Savannah native who most recently served as the chief officer for Virginia’s turnaround program.
“[Our plan] requires the schools to interact with families, the community, the district and the state. We need all hands to be on deck for schools and students to succeed.”
The idea of partnerships was a constant theme for Thomas, who said if entities outside the school see the need to tend to the school, then they have a role in changing the outcome for students inside the school.
The First Priority Act was signed into law in July by Gov. Nathan Deal to help provide low-performing public schools with the resources needed to raise the academic bar. It was not Deal’s first choice to help schools.
In 2016 Deal promoted a plan to create a separate school district – the Opportunity School District – composed of the lowest performing schools and run by an appointed superintendent.
That plan was soundly rejected by voters in November 2016, and replaced by lawmakers with the kinder, gentler First Priority Act. That plan puts most of the responsibility for change at the district level with help from the state, if requested. If, after three years, the school fails to make strides, the state will intervene using existing laws to reform the school.
Of the 104 public schools currently identified by test scores as the lowest performing 5 percent, Thomas selected five to initially focus on; with plans to add additional schools over time. The first five are all located in South Georgia, although 41 of the 104 are located in Metro Atlanta (11 are in the Fulton County School System.)
“There was not an absolute formula in choosing the five pilot schools,” said Thomas, noting he worked with the State School Board in making the selections. “Since this is a [voluntary] process we did look at school systems that were open to the [process] and welcomed it.”
He said the goal is to focus resources on academic and non-academic needs of students, and he acknowledged that many of the factors for success are outside the school house.
“If you really want to address what happens in the classroom you have to consider the non-academic variables,” said Thomas.
The program will rely heavily on data and research from other states with turnaround programs, using best practices already proven to work. But change will be gradual, Thomas stressed, noting “transformation takes time.”
The process will start with development of a district plan and needs assessment to design a strategy of support and resources necessary for each school. State intervention is voluntary at first, and can end when the school is no longer in the lowest percentiles.
During a subsequent briefing by State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, he noted the state’s goal is to move the schools out of the turnaround program as efficiently as possible, and remove them from the list of lowest performers.
“I would like to eventually put Dr. Thomas out of a job,” Woods said.