Eric Thomas, the Chief Turnaround Officer for poorly-performing schools in Georgia
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia turnaround chief: missing ‘collaboration’ creates ‘barriers’ to better schools

Four of the 19 schools in Georgia’s “turnaround” program have improved enough to get off the list of the state’s worst performers.

They are among the first group of 10 picked in December for the state turnaround program, which was created by a 2017 law, said the new agency’s chief, Eric Thomas.

Ominously, though, he warned that such progress will be difficult to maintain without greater cooperation with the Georgia Department of Education.

"We can't do this by ourselves,” he told a committee of the Georgia Board of Education Wednesday. “I am looking forward to a greater level of cohesiveness from the superintendent and from the chief of staff."

There are about 200,000 students in low-performing schools, he said, and to help all of them improve “we've got to be willing to get rid of silos and competition and create cohesiveness and collaboration."

Thomas was tiptoeing around the rift that opened between state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who won re-election Tuesday, and his fellow Republican, Gov. Nathan Deal, when they fought over control of the turnaround office last year.

Deal won that battle when lawmakers wrote House Bill 338 to make the Chief Turnaround Officer subordinate to the Georgia Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor, even though the turnaround chief is also an employee of the education department run by Woods.

State board member Barbara Hampton didn’t mince words: "I guess the elephant in the room is that you're not cohesively working together. And so what exactly would you like to have happen?"

Thomas said a first step would be “a conversation” with the education department leadership, because the law intends collaboration. He added that he was unsure he could continue the current progress “if there’s certain barriers that are not addressed.”

Thomas later clarified that his office and the education department need to both work more closely on helping the worst-performing schools and on applying what they’ve learned to the rest of Georgia’s schools.

The new state law says the state education board “shall ensure” that all “necessary” education department resources are made available to help targeted schools and that the turnaround office and education department “shall work collaboratively.”

State board member Mike Royal said that after the dust settles with the election, the board chairman will talk over the issues with Thomas, the education department leadership “and leadership across the street,” a reference to either the governor’s office or lawmakers, or both, in the neighboring state Capitol.

An education department spokeswoman said the agency has worked to build “a good partnership” with the turnaround office and will continue working with Thomas in students’ best interests. Agency leaders have put “significant time” into meeting with Thomas and his staff and tried to ensure access to resources, the spokeswoman, Meghan Frick, said in written response to questions. “Cooperation,” she added, “does not mean we will always agree on every point of policy, and when concerns have arisen, we’ve voiced them.”

Among the concerns raised by Woods: the law is silent about how schools get into, and out of, the turnaround program, and Thomas hasn’t communicated any formal criteria he may have developed. “Superintendent Woods has made it clear he believes there should be clear entrance and exit criteria,” Frick wrote, adding that “it shouldn’t be the decision of a single individual.”

Selection for the turnaround program is a unilateral decision by the turnaround chief, who so far has only chosen schools that want to participate. If schools fail to improve after three years, he can turn them over to a non-profit or another school district, firing all the staff and doing “any other interventions” he deems appropriate.

The four turnaround schools that got off the off the eligibility list did so based on their College and Career Ready Performance Index scores were released last week. Schools qualify for the program when they have an average three-year score among the bottom 5 percent. There are 104 qualifying schools this year, the same as last year.

Thomas identified only one of his four schools that exited the list: Clay County Middle School. He said officials there wanted more help and asked to remain in the turnaround program, citing it as an example of cooperation and appreciation on the local level. District officials could not be reached for comment. Nor could officials in the other two counties where schools in the program rose off the turnaround list: one in Dooly County and two in Dougherty County.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Thomas to identify all four schools, but he did not, and he did not indicate what will happen with them now that they’re off the eligibility list.

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