Eric Thomas

Selection of worst-performing Georgia schools is imminent

Eric Thomas has not formally started his job as Georgia’s first “chief turnaround officer” for woebegone schools, but he is already at work identifying those he wants to help.

Thomas, hired under a new state law, starts work Nov. 16, but in his first business meeting with his new bosses Wednesday he revealed his timeline and criteria for targeting schools.

The University of Virginia school improvement expert has laid his plans through this year, and to stay on track he needs to have schools picked “literally in the next week or so,” he told the Georgia Board of Education.

Thomas still lives in Cincinnati but is already at work culling schools from the list 0f the 104 worst performers. They have routinely gotten the lowest scores on Georgia’s school report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

Thomas was hired under The First Priority Act, a bipartisan bill passed this year after the failure of a constitutional amendment a year ago that would have given the state unilateral authority to take over “chronically failing” schools. The new law requires a turnaround officer to work with school districts to improve schools among the bottom 5 percent. Schools that don’t improve can then be taken over.

Thomas can’t pick them all, though, at least not right now. With a budget of maybe a couple million dollars, he will only be able to hire a handful of “coaches” to work with schools.

So one of his new bosses, school board member Barbara Hampton, asked how he will distill a list of the neediest schools: “I guess the $64,000 question is how do we decide?”

Thomas had a ready answer: “leading indicators.”

The school report card is a trailing indicator because the scores are calculated and released months after a school year ends. (The Georgia Department of Education released the 2016-17 school year report card last week.) So Thomas will look for fresh information that connotes current performance.

Student absenteeism, teacher turnover and incidence of discipline are a “huge indicator” of a school’s current learning environment, Thomas said.

Hampton suggested that Thomas ask districts if they want the state’s intervention, and Thomas said that’s what he plans with the first wave of schools.

School districts that aren’t on the first intervention list might find that comforting, but the list will grow eventually, possibly to include districts that don’t want state help.

“The last thing that we want at this point in time is a fight,” Thomas said, adding, “We may have some later.”

Residents hope the former school will be used as office space or possibly dedicate it to the arts.

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