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Georgia schools lay unequal foundations for college

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Laura Diamond contributed to this article

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s education team is dedicated to bringing you stories about what’s going on inside Georgia classrooms and how state and local officials are managing millions of taxpayer dollars devoted to education spending. Georgia has one of the nation’s largest enrollments of rural students. How these students fare in school has an impact on the metro region and the state as a whole. Education reporter Jaime Sarrio visited Wilcox and Tift counties and talked to more than 40 students, school officials, taxpayers and experts about the unique issues rural districts face in educating children. Sarrio and database specialist Kelly Guckian also analyzed state SAT scores, remedial rates, AP tests and graduation rates to complete this report.

Solutions

In Georgia, disparities between schools can be blamed on money and geography. Who’s responsible for evening out the differences – state or local governments – is up for debate. But some possible solutions have emerged, including:

1. Increase local taxes. Many rural districts have room to raise taxes, but choose not to. Local leaders say the increased rates wouldn’t generate that much more revenue because property values are so low, and would cause too much financial stress on low-income residents. Critics say these local districts must do more to contribute.

2. Consolidation. Past efforts to merge rural districts have failed, but some lawmakers say small districts could look for other ways to share services.

Fran Millar, the senate education committee chairman from Dunwoody, said the state is exploring how districts could use regional education agencies to house specialized central office workers many rural districts can’t afford.

3. Technology. The state was a leader in creating the Georgia Virtual School to ensure all students could access a variety of courses. But some districts aren’t fully taking advantage of the online classes, Millar said. Georgia school Superintendent John Barge said the state needs to improve its infrastructure so schools can have Internet capable of supporting video conferencing and other cutting-edge teaching tools.

How we got the story

Veteran education reporter Jaime Sarrio conducted several interviews with Dixie Edalgo and Allyson Reyner about their high school and college experiences, and spent time in Wilcox County and other rural school districts interviewing educators, officials and parents. She also extensively researched the subject, reviewing studies by state government and nonprofit experts.

Data specialist Kelly Guckian gathered extensive data on test scores, remedial education and other measures of college readiness, then analyzed thousands of records to demonstrate the disparity between rural and non-rural schools. Sarrio used that analysis in reporting this story.

Guckian’s analysis also showed that as an individual group, schools in larger cities trail other Georgia schools in several academic categories. However, this story focuses on rural schools because they have different issues and receive little of the outside attention, study and money that urban schools have gotten in recent years.

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