In Georgia schools: when takeover becomes ‘turnaround’

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In Georgia schools: when takeover becomes ‘turnaround’

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TY TAGAMI / AJC
Gov. Nathan Deal greeted state Superintendent Richard Woods before speaking at the Georgia Education Leadership Institute in 2016, an annual conference for superintendents, school board members, principals and other education leaders. Deal promoted his education agenda, which included a state takeover of “chronically failing” schools. The constitutional amendment later failed, prompting passage of The First Priority Act.

As 2017 came to a close, Georgia leaders began a novel experiment in school “turnaround.”

Low-performing schools -- “chronically failing” Georgia’s governor used to call them -- had been bedeviling leaders for a long time, at least since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, and the resulting mandatory tests clarified the gulf in performance between schools.

Then came Gov. Nathan Deal’s big proposal: a statewide “opportunity” school district with authority to take over schools with a long history of poor performance. His plan died in November 2016, when voters handily rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state-run school district.

That loss set the stage for a public fight this year over the successor to the Opportunity School District idea. Deal pushed for, and got, a kind of OSD plan B. The General Assembly approved The First Priority Act, a law that establishes the office of a school “turnaround” chief.

The measure opened a rift between the governor and Georgia’s elected school chief, Superintendent Richard Woods. Woods wanted the Chief Turnaround Officer to report to him; instead, the legislature gave the chief’s office to the state education board, a panel of gubernatorial appointees.

This fall, the board hired Eric Thomas of Ohio as Georgia’s first CTO. In early December, he identified 11 low-scoring schools to participate in the first round of the turnaround experiment. None was in metro Atlanta, and nearly all were in rural south Georgia, away from the media spotlight.

Wanting to avoid controversy, Thomas said he sought volunteers for this first go-around, but he hinted that a fight could come in the future. He’ll be picking the next set of schools in the spring.

Some of metro Atlanta’s school leaders have said they’d rather be left on their own to improve their schools. They have resources that rural school districts lack. But many of the schools that qualify for “turnaround” due to low scores on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the school report card produced by Woods and his Department of Education, are in metro Atlanta.

If they can’t improve their schools fast enough and they don’t open the doors wide when Thomas comes knocking, expect to hear a lot more about The First Priority Act in 2018.

The schools he picks will have three years to improve. By then, a new governor will be in charge -- watching to see whether this experiment yields results.

Go to myAJC.com/education, the subscriber website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for in-depth reporting on education...

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