Georgia’s new school fixer says districts must do the work

Eric Thomas (left), on a Nov. 2 panel at the National Association of State Boards of Education conference in Atlanta. With him, from left: Susan Bowles Therriault, American Institutes for Research; Erica Champagne, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Carey Wright, Mississippi schools superintendent; and moderator Ann Duffy, with consultant Education First.

Eric Thomas (left), on a Nov. 2 panel at the National Association of State Boards of Education conference in Atlanta. With him, from left: Susan Bowles Therriault, American Institutes for Research; Erica Champagne, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Carey Wright, Mississippi schools superintendent; and moderator Ann Duffy, with consultant Education First.

Eric Thomas is swaying his head from side to side, his expression seeming to telegraph an answer.

The question was: Should school districts worry about him?

On Nov. 16, the longtime Cincinnati resident and educator became Georgia’s first school “turnaround” chief. His job is to select low-performing schools for attention and send “coaches” to help them. Then, if things don’t get better after three years, he is to take off the gloves. The law requires him to select an “intervention” that could range from staying the course to replacing the staff or removing schools from local control.

Thomas said school districts will also be under the microscope: “This is not ‘Smith Elementary, what are you doing to turn around,’ ” he said, making up a name. “This is ‘Smith Elementary and the district: what are you doing to turn Smith Elementary around?’ ”

When asked if this was an ominous message for school districts, he answered with that enigmatic head oscillation, and a smile.

Thomas, 48, was born in Savannah. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother raised him and two siblings on income from housekeeping and work in nursing homes. Late in his childhood, they moved to Cincinnati, where he has lived since. He earned a Ph.D., ran a school, worked as a district administrator and worked for the University of Virginia as a “turnaround” expert. He has one grown son who attended public schools, and he is married to a woman who will help decide when they move to Atlanta.

He said a return to his roots in Georgia was among his reasons for pursuing this unique job, which was created by state law earlier this year. House Bill 338, The First Priority Act, vests unusual power in an education appointee. It also creates what some have criticized as duplication. The Georgia Department of Education, led by an elected superintendent, already targets low-performing schools for assistance. Superintendent Richard Woods sparred with Gov. Nathan Deal over control of the turnaround process and its chief, but the General Assembly sided with the governor, placing the position under the governor's appointed school board.

In early November, during a half-hour interview before his first business meeting with members of that board, Thomas shared a little about his still-developing plans while he munched a meager lunch: two bags of cheddar crackers and a bag of Chex.

Besides family ties to Georgia, Thomas said he was interested in this role because of the opportunity to make a mark on a national stage. If Georgia’s turnaround model is successful, he said, it could be replicated across the country. “And what an incredible opportunity,” he said.

Thomas comes to Georgia after five years of creating “big picture strategy” for the University of Virginia’s school turnaround project, a joint program between the business and education schools that consults with school districts across the country.

Before that, he was chief of “innovation” for Cincinnati Public Schools, where his work included redesigning its teacher evaluation system and launching a principal training academy. He had been principal of the city’s Aiken College and Career High School, where he oversaw improved results on the state report card.

How? By ensuring teachers had the right curriculum, he said, and “I had really strong people around me.”

Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, remembers Thomas as a hardworking administrator focused on test scores. She battled with him over some things but said he seemed “respectful” of traditional public schools. She said he improved Aiken High by focusing on the basics, such as ensuring teachers had quality teaching materials that matched what the state standards required students to learn.

Thomas didn’t strike her as a devotee of the school choice movement, the kind of educator who would gladly hand over a traditional school to an independent charter operator, which is anathema to a teachers union like Sellers’.

“I don’t think he will do anything to destroy a public system — unless he was hired to do that,” she said. “If he’s hired to do that, he’ll do it.”

In recent years, Thomas has consulted with Ohio, helping to assess the state's lowest-performing school districts. Then, last summer, he was among five finalists to run the Lorain City School District. Lorain was performing poorly enough to be placed under the control of a state "academic distress" commission that was choosing the next district leader. He didn't get the job.

Mark Ballard, a Lorain school board member, was not impressed with Thomas or the other four finalists. All were being imposed by the state, which he worries will execute its authority to replace traditional public schools with autonomous charter schools.“The guy that we got was the best of the five but all five were poor,” he said, adding that the takeover process seemed aimed at “trying to privatize and charter our school districts here in Ohio.”

That sounds a lot like the criticism that led to the failure of the proposal last year for a Georgia Opportunity School District with authority to take over "chronically failing" schools. After it bombed at the polls, it's chief backer, Deal, pushed lawmakers for the new law that created the turnaround chief's role. It passed with bipartisan approval and the support of most of the state's educator advocacy groups. It requires buy-in from local school districts, although they might face costly consequences if they fail to see improvement after implementing plans devised with Thomas: Nearly every school district has a contract with the state allowing them to waive mandates for things like minimum salaries, class sizes and operating days in exchange for academic results. Districts that refuse to cooperate could lose those waivers.

Thomas said something teachers will be eager to hear: They aren’t to blame for the problems that children, especially those from low-income households, bring to school. He will look at “the root causes” of low performance. Are students too sleepy to learn because they are homeless? Are they too hungry to concentrate because their parents are broke? Are there addiction problems in the home? “I think it’s a critical piece of the work,” he said. He will also focus on strengthening leadership because “the research is really clear: If you want to transform an organization, leadership is a critical component.”

This turnaround work is likely to cost money that school districts with already-pinched budgets could have a hard time finding. They must consult with Thomas to find the “resources” they’ll need, whether from the local community or the state.

The state education board must “ensure that all necessary department resources and supports are made available,” the law says. The governor and lawmakers added $1 million to the agency’s budget specifically for this, and allocated another $1.25 million from an “innovation” grant program. But that isn’t much compared to the cost of Georgia’s 2,300 public schools, about $9 billion a year, for an average of $4 million apiece.

During his first business meeting with some of his new bosses on the state school board, Thomas said he would identify schools in phases. Only those at the bottom on the state report card are eligible for intervention, but there are 104 on the current list. Too many. So Thomas must trim it. He said he is “a firm believer that data tells the story” and that he would look for other numbers — rates of student absenteeism, teacher turnover, and student discipline — to select the schools.

Then, in early December, he revealed 11 schools he was picking in the first go-round. They are mostly in rural South Georgia, where poverty is high and districts are short on cash.

Thomas said he sought volunteers who wanted the state’s help.

He wanted eager "partners," at least for the initial round. Though eventual school takeover or conversion to charter schools is possible under the law, Thomas said that's not something "on my radar." He recognizes the suspicions raised by last year's Opportunity School District fight. School boards in Republican and Democratic areas banded together against the threat to their local control, and black opinion leaders including Andrew Young, Kasim Reed and Hank Aaron locked arms with them. Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, called it a "setup" of black people. One of their main objections was to a provision that allowed public schools to be taken over and placed under for-profit companies.

The new law still provides for removing schools from district control, but specifically prohibits turning them over to for-profit entities.

Given the history, Thomas knows he must be more diplomat than dictator. “For us to make a difference for kids, we’ve got to make adults understand that this is not the Opportunity School District,” he said in an interview.

At that first business meeting with state school board members he said he wants to avoid controversy. He doesn’t want the kickoff of this fledgling initiative to be marked by fighting, he said.

Then he added, “We may have some later.”

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