Georgia’s kinder, gentler approach to turning around failing schools

In describing his strategy as Georgia’s first chief school turnaround officer, Eric Thomas referenced the thriller “Taken.” Sure, as a former CIA operative, Liam Neeson possessed the skills to track down his kidnapped daughter on his own, but he sought the help of others.

“We can’t do this work by ourselves,” said Thomas. “We have to enlist others.”

Since he arrived a year ago from the University of Virginia's acclaimed turnaround program, Thomas has allayed the fears of many critics who worried that he’d be closer to “The Lone Ranger,” galloping into districts and corralling them into charter schools at legal gunpoint. Those concerns weren’t without basis.

The position of chief turnaround officer was a consolation prize to Gov. Nathan Deal after voters spurned his attempt in 2016 to amend the Georgia constitution to broaden state powers to take control of local schools. The failed constitutional amendment would have allowed charter school operators, whether nonprofit or for-profit, to manage struggling schools at the state's behest.

With both Republican and Democratic voters opposing Deal's Opportunity School District, the governor and the GOP leadership regrouped and crafted House Bill 338 or OSD Plan B, which favored collaboration rather than compulsion. As Senate Education and Youth Chair Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, said at the time, "It's about cooperation in schools not the occupation of schools."

However, the law authorizes Thomas to tighten his lasso if the school fails to improve in three years, empowering him to fire the school staff, convert the school to a charter, turn it over to a nonprofit manager or another school district, or allow students to transfer to a higher-performing school.

Dr. Eric Thomas
Dr. Eric Thomas

But speaking at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum Wednesday, Thomas said, “If we ever get to the point of taking over schools, that means we failed. That means we didn’t do our job very well.”

While Gov. Deal may not agree, the voters likely did him a favor torpedoing the Opportunity School District; research suggests that hostile takeovers don't improve schools. As GPEE vice president and researcher Dana Rickman explained, large-scale turnaround efforts historically have not been all that successful.

That's because, as Thomas pointed out, "No one is better equipped to know what needs to happen in a school than the individuals in the school."

On the spectrum of school improvement approaches, Thomas said takeover models such as the Opportunity School District represent one end while doing nothing represents the other. "Our goal is to be somewhere in the middle. What is that sweet spot in the middle? We call it a partnership," he said.

Thomas said effective turnaround strategies borrow from the business world where leaders are better trained to manage change. So, superintendents and principals are being paired with CEOs to learn about resource allocation and alignment and returns on investment. School leaders may be strong in instruction and curriculum, but not adept in change management and talent development, said Thomas.

While Thomas said there are 104 schools in Georgia deemed chronically failing by state measures, his office is only working with fewer than 20 now. However, within the rural districts where he is working, reforms in turnaround schools are spreading to other schools, said Thomas.

Thomas said many of the challenges schools face in raising performance relate to student health, including asthma, vision, hearing, language or oral health problems, mental and behavioral health, and poor nutrition. "More than 35 percent of students in many of our districts do not have three solid meals a day," said Thomas. So, health and wellness screenings are an integral element in improving the culture and climate of each school.

That wider lens affirms what Georgia educators have long said but long been ignored when they did: Multiple factors affect student achievement, many of which are outside of the classroom. "For the first time, there is recognition and acknowledgement at the state level that there are other issues involved when there is low student achievement. Whenever educators would talk about the broader environment, they were accused of making excuses," said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association.

Ultimately, Thomas said a turnaround effort "is really about saving students’ lives. When I was interviewed, I said that if you are simply bumping test scores up a few points here or a few points there, I am not interested. What I am interested in is how do we assure we are saving kids, not getting rid of kids."

Read about friction between Thomas and the Georgia Department of Education here.

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