Clayton schools look forward with an eye on past successes

Clayton school Superintendent Morcease Beasley greets county teachers during a district kickoff Tuesday at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center in Jonesboro. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Clayton school Superintendent Morcease Beasley greets county teachers during a district kickoff Tuesday at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center in Jonesboro. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

As Clayton school Superintendent Morcease Beasley looks ahead to a new year of classes on Monday, he can’t help but brag a little about last year’s successes.

The district had its largest graduating class in the 2018-2019 school year with more than 3,000 students getting their high school diplomas, he says. Those graduates received more than $90 million in scholarships for the first time. Seventy-one students earned an associate degree while in school and more than 500 were enrolled in dual-enrollment classes for college prep.

And the number of scholarships given out by Beasley’s office rose from 12 in 2018 to 160 in 2019.

“That’s because we started an education foundation and the donations have been rolling in,” Beasley said.

Clayton is one of several school systems that will welcome students to class Monday, including Gwinnett, Fayette and DeKalb. Douglas County students go back to school Wednesday while Fulton and the city of Atlanta will begin classes on Aug. 12.

The successes are a big deal for Clayton schools. Many leaders in the district think it has not gotten recognition for the strides it has made over the past decade. The school system did not have a single school on the list of Georgia's worst-performing schools in 2018 (it had one in 2017) and saw improvements in eight categories on the recently released Georgia Milestone tests.

In addition, the mock trial team at Jonesboro High School won the 2019 Georgia Mock Trial Championship.

"We are really excelling, but we get a bad rap because of what happened in the past," County Commissioner DeMont Davis said, referring to the district's 2008 accreditation loss because of board of education infighting. (Clayton won back its accreditation in 2009, though it was put on probation for two years. In 2013, it was accredited on advisement before getting full accreditation in 2016).

“We have students that have scholarships to every Ivy League School except Harvard,” he said.

That doesn’t mean leaders are blind to the challenges the system faces. Beasley acknowledges that several schools in the system are struggling, the district lags its metro Atlanta peers in several testing metrics and that the county’s poverty level — 21.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line — impacts whether children meet or exceed reading and math standards.

For instance, only 16.3 percent of children in the 30297 ZIP code of Forest Park exceed third-grade reading standards compared to 44.1 percent in the region, according to a United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Child-Well Being study. About 21 percent of students in the same ZIP code exceed eighth-grade math standards compared to 46.7 percent regionally.

And graduation rates are not where he wants them to be districtwide. While two of the county’s 10 high schools have a graduation rate of 100 percent, the overall rate in 2018 was 71.7 percent, its highest ever.

“We don’t know what the graduation rate for 2019 is yet, but we’re anticipating an increase there,” he said.

Arvin Johnson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Kennesaw State University, said building on successes is crucial in turning around school systems. Public schools don’t have the luxury of turning around children who don’t have the skill sets to succeed in every area, so moving the needle in the right direction, even incrementally, is a psychological boost that can feed further improvements.

“By highlighting those positive stories it instills positivity in the students and gets parents to invest in their child and the school system,” he said.

For the 2019-2020 school year, Beasley is implementing an advanced learning plan that will require all sixth-graders to take accelerated math with a goal of mandating that all future eighth-graders take algebra. He also is requiring ninth-graders to take either an advanced-placement class or take dual-enrollment courses. The goal is to get them to complete during the year a “career pathway,” a specialized curriculum designed to help students earn credentials or certifications for specific jobs.

He is particularly focused on the ninth grade because that is where students who later drop out begin showing the most clear signs they may be falling behind at a rate from which it is hard to recover.

“We have a lot more work to do and I anticipate that at the rate we’re improving, we’ll be closing the gap with the state sooner than later,” he said. “It’s a journey, but we’re getting there.”

He said he also is encouraged by some of the future plans for the district that were part of the education SPLOST voters passed with around 77 percent of the vote this past March. Through the $280 million SPLOST, the district plans to fund three new schools, replace old buses, update HVAC systems and set aside money for an early learning system to serve Clayton preschoolers who are not in pre-K programs.

The funding also will be used to create a career and college-prep academy, purchase more Chromebooks for students and build an arena large enough to host all the school system’s graduations.

"They are excited about the direction we are headed in," Beasley said of residents. "They are excited about the expectations that we have on students for advanced learning."