Yes: Kids need an escape from chronic failure

Across Georgia, students are heading back to school for a new year. Parents are packing lunches, teachers are planning lessons, and kids are hopping on school buses and walking into new classrooms. But the quality of education varies dramatically, depending on where you live.

Many students will go to a great school that will prepare them to thrive in the 21st century economy. Sadly, about 80,000 will return to one of Georgia’s chronically failing schools — something that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

According to Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, 139 of Georgia’s 2,200 schools are considered chronically failing. These schools have received an “F” grade for at least three consecutive years and, in many cases, much longer. Too often, these schools are in our most disadvantaged communities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

One year trapped in a failing school is one year too many, but many Georgia students spend their entire education trapped in such schools. For too long, we have stood idly by and watched these schools fail generations of students. Thankfully, earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Legislature took a necessary step to address this long-standing problem through the creation of Georgia’s own Opportunity School District.

The proposal was grounded in years of research and best practices from across the country. Nearby states, like Louisiana and Tennessee, have used similar strategies and seen dramatic results. In Louisiana, the Recovery School District was tasked with turning around New Orleans’ public schools, some of the worst in the nation, after Hurricane Katrina.

Ten years later, New Orleans has some of the most impressive and sustained improvements in student performance in the country. Tulane University Professor Doug Harris recently completed an extensive study of the RSD and concluded, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

Tennessee’s Achievement School District has the admirable goal of moving the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent. Three years in, it is already showing progress.

As a group, ASD schools in their second and third years earned the state’s highest possible growth rating, averaging a Level 5 on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. In fact, according to the ASD, four of their schools “made the state’s ‘Priority Improving’ list this year, indicating they are out of the bottom 10 percent and/or demonstrating outstanding year-over-year gains.”

The ultimate goal is student achievement and an end to chronically failing schools in Georgia. To that end, it has been encouraging to see local districts gain a renewed sense of urgency to turn these schools around.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen recently said, “APS does not have a day to waste.” We can only hope every district in the state with a chronically failing school will feel the same way.

If the Opportunity School District is the mechanism to instill that desire, so be it. And if a district either cannot or will not make necessary changes and a school continues to score an “F” grade on the state assessment, the OSD will serve as a much-needed safety net for those students.

All parents dream of sending their children to a great school, but today, too many parents do not have that opportunity. Thanks to the governor and the bold Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, when Georgia voters go to the ballot in 2016, they will have the chance to say we will not stand by and do nothing while schools fail year after year.

The OSD is Georgia’s opportunity to give students and their families the education, and future, they deserve.

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Michael O’Sullivan is Georgia state director of StudentsFirst.