April 20, 2017 Marietta - R'moni Clark-Hudson (second from left), 17, shows the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center's Clothing Closet and Laundry area to visitors in Marietta High School on Thursday, April 20, 2017. Leigh Colburn has earned plaudits for her work with at-risk students at the year-old Graduate Marietta Student Success Center, an experiment housed inside the city's high school. Educators from across Georgia have made pilgrimages to the center, hoping to find ideas they can copy. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

School principal asks what will keep students from failing

Their responses were not academic

Marietta may have found answers to a riddle that has perplexed some Georgia schools for generations: what will it take to improve poor student performance? 

It found the answers by asking students, and their responses -- it wasn’t about the academics -- led Colburn to resign as principal in 2015.

The students told her their struggles with math and English stemmed from something deeper: problems at home, from sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts to hunger and homelessness.

She started a new center that is turning heads as Georgia embarks on a statewide effort to improve its lowest performing schools, under Gov. Nathan Deal’s new First Priority Act.

More than 200 schools and organizations have made a pilgrimage to look and learn. The center earned Marietta schools, at best a tenth the size of the typical metro Atlanta district, an innovator of the year award last summer from the Georgia Charter System Foundation. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a top contender to succeed Deal, hosted the ceremony and touted the “one-of-a-kind” program. Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chairman of the state Senate Education and Youth Committee, was a judge on the selection committee, and calls the center’s work “exemplary.”  

Tippins said he considers the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center a model for the rest of the state. So does state school board member Scott Johnson, among those in charge of the turnaround effort under the First Priority Act. The center “is certainly the kind of thing I’d like to see repeated around the state,” he said.

At myAJC.com: how Colburn and her center could influence the future of Georgia education. 

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