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Some schools say ‘no’ to turnaround, but not this Georgia district

Some school districts don’t want help from Georgia’s new Chief Turnaround Officer to improve their low-performing schools, but the superintendent in Dougherty County is welcoming it.

Superintendent Kenneth Dyer said the training that leaders in two of his elementary schools got from CTO Eric Thomas’ new agency helped improve their scores so much that they are no longer eligible for the turnaround program. 

Although the College and Career Ready Performance Index scores for Morningside and Turner elementary schools mean they are no longer in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools, Dougherty added two new schools. 

Dyer said he would welcome the chance to enroll one of them, Radium Springs Middle School, "if the opportunity is afforded to us."

That’s a contrast to the message from some metro Atlanta superintendents who said last year that they'd rather improve their schools on their own. More recently, a delegation from Macon County traveled to Atlanta with a similar message: county Superintendent Marc Maynor told the Georgia Board of Education that the state Department of Education had already devised a school improvement plan and that bringing in Thomas would be “redundant” and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

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Thomas told state lawmakers earlier this year that he might target metro Atlanta schools, but so far he has not.

The CTO position was established by the Georgia General Assembly last year as a response to voter rejection of Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed Opportunity School District, which was pitched as a statewide takeover of “chronically failing” schools. The CTO law has a more nuanced approach but can still lead to a takeover: the turnaround chief can unilaterally enroll eligible schools in his assistance program, and if they fail to improve he can replace school staff and turn management over to a third party. 

Even so, the Dougherty County superintendent was pleased with the experience — and with the resources Thomas brougth to the tiny, rural district. Like Macon County, Dougherty already had longstanding improvement plans for its low-performing schools, but the staff had been unable to implement them. The CTO brought in trainers who helped them prioritize, set milestones and assess progress. 

"They helped us focus on key elements, making sure we monitor those throughout the year," Dyer said. 

Although Thomas hasn't stated publicly that schools that improve their scores enough to get off the turnaround eligibility list will automatically exit his program, that's Dyer's expectation. He said he's gotten no formal notice about that from the CTO, "but that's the understanding I have based on some conversations we had early in this process." 

It's a touchy subject at the Georgia Department of Education, which is technically Thomas' employer but not his boss. 

When lawmakers were creating the CTO position, state school Superintendent Richard Woods wanted it under his chain of command. But the Legislature put the position under the Georgia Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor.

Thomas hinted at tension between him and the state education department last week, when he told the education board that more “cohesiveness” was needed from the superintendent.

Woods, the education department leader, raised a concern of his own, noting that the law is silent about exit criteria and adding that 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,” a spokeswoman said, adding that “it shouldn’t be the decision of a single individual.” 

Thomas said last week that four of the 19 schools in his program had improved enough to exit the eligibility list, which comprises schools with an average CCRPI score in the bottom 5 percent over three years.

In addition to the two in Dougherty, Clay County Middle School and Dooly Middle School in Dooly County rose off the eligibility list.

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