One was labeled a dropout factory for its 37 percent high school graduation rate in 2006. In 2008, another earned the title as the campus with more handgun violations than any other in the state. At the third, gang violence and empty desks from chronically absent students were the norm.
Each had their own identities and challenges. But one thing Lucy C. Laney, T.W. Josey and Glenn Hills high schools shared in common by 2010 was their inclusion as part of the bottom 5 percent of the nation’s worst performing schools.
Still, with that distinction came hope and help.
In the 2010-11 school year, the three Richmond County schools began reform using a three-year federal School Improvement Grant. The grant awarded each school almost $3 million to fund intensive teacher training, technology, extended learning time, help from state intervention specialists and a renewed sense of urgency.
The SIG program, part of the Obama administration’s effort to reform persistently low-achieving schools, funneled $3 billion into more than 1,300 schools across the country.
Three years and millions of dollars later, significant changes have been seen in attendance, discipline and other aspects of school culture in the Augusta schools. Improvement on test scores has been slower – in some cases, scores are worse – but experts say it’s typical to see progress on culture before academics in intervention schools.
“It’s easier to turn the tide on school culture quickly than on academics,” said Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, who researched reform efforts at 36 Chicago schools over four years. “Students in chronically failing high schools typically come from chronically failing elementary schools and so accelerating academic achievement takes significant time and effort. Creating a safe, welcoming, well organized school can happen much more quickly.”
While each school has its own culture to reform, many of the interventions were similar. All three schools used a significant portion of their money toward training sessions and professional learning software for teachers. The rest went to purchasing technology such as computers and SMART boards, salaries for new positions, incentives for teachers who met performance targets and stipends for after-school and weekend training.
Each school’s budget also split the salaries of a SIG coordinator and technology support specialist, $112,000 and $80,000 respectively.
All were required to establish leadership teams and to analyze student data weekly. The grant required each school to have a new principal in place, and the new leadership was charged with making the schools places that are clean, safe and where students and teachers wanted to work.
The most invasive changes took place at Laney, where the district chose one of the more serious reform models available under SIG.
The Turnaround Model, used by about 20 percent of the nation’s SIG schools, required a new principal and the replacement of 50 percent of the staff.
Tonethia Beasley started those changes as principal but was replaced by Tonia Mason in November 2010.
The grant provided more than $300,000 for technology to buy high-tech calculators, desktop computers, netbooks, document cameras and curriculum software.
Teachers were put on a demanding professional learning schedule, which was gradually reduced over the three years. They took in almost three days of training a week, including Saturdays, to learn instruction strategies and differentiation skills.
The grant funded the $60,000 yearly salary of a drop-out specialist, who visited students’ homes, met with parents and helped ninth-graders survive their first year, statistically the boiling point for high school dropouts.
Graduation coach Gwendolyn Golatt, who worked at Laney since 2005, said the reform has been transformative yet demanding on staff and students.
The school day was built with extended learning time for students to receive remediation in various subjects.
With the change in structure, Golatt was able to work with every senior. For those on track to graduate, extended learning time was used for filling out financial aid forms and doing college searches.
Students who were behind were able to focus on credit recovery or remediation. The school saw its chronic absentee rate, those who missed 15 days or more, drop from 39 percent in 2009-10 to 3 percent in 2012-13. Discipline referrals fell from 1,773 in 2009-10 to 472 this year. Still, the school has ground to cover academically, with passing rates below 50 percent in five of eight subjects on the End of Course Tests.
“In the past, they wanted to graduate, but their focus was not on meeting requirements,” Golatt said. “There was no data being used; there were no relationships. … I thank God for the grant because we got training, technology. Kids are taking advantage of after-school opportunities.”
When Josey Principal Ronald Wiggins took over the school in 2009, he warned teachers about the changes to come the following year with the grant.
Under the Transformation Model chosen for Josey, used at majority of SIG schools across the country, the school was not required to replace half the staff like at Laney.
But by summer 2010, after Wiggins’ first year at the school and before the grant began in the fall, 18 teachers left in anticipation of the changes and the demands that would come with them.
Wiggins implemented weekly training for teachers, collaborative planning sessions between departments, and leadership team meetings that singled out every student and tracked their progress with data.
Community involvement became a priority, and Wiggins revived his “Take it to the Streets” campaign, where school officials held meetings in the community centers of the housing projects and brought businesses in to partner on student volunteer projects and events.
“Community involvement before was extracurricular,” Wiggins said. “My baby is going to get an award, or my baby is going to throw a ball, that kind of thing. What we wanted our parents to see is having a successful high school is more than extracurricular.”
As culture changed, so did performance.
The chronic absentee rate dropped from 39 percent at the end of the 2009-10 year to 18 percent this year. The pass rate on the Georgia High School Writing Test jumped to 85 percent in 2012, up six points from 2009. And Josey’s graduation rate jumped more than five points to 52 percent in 2011-12 from the year before.
“It took a lot to get teachers and students to buy into it,” said business and computer science teacher Ina Tucker. “The buy-in was rough … but three years in, I’m a much better teacher than I was three years ago.”
At Glenn Hills
Glenn Hills faced similar grant requirements to Laney and Josey but had a disruption in leadership when Principal Wayne Frazier, who was brought in to lead the SIG process, was transferred out of the school in 2012.
Frazier’s assistant principal, Charles Givens, however, picked up where his predecessor left off.
Following the Transformation Model like Josey, the SIG program built extended learning time into the school day, provided weekly training for teachers and purchased much needed technology.
Givens continued a mentoring program started by Frazier, which required all school employees to work with at least one student. The goal was to focus on social and emotional struggles of the students so academics could follow.
Attendance improved drastically with just 11 percent of students chronically absent in 2012-13 compared with 28 percent in 2009-10. The graduation rate jumped 11 points to 57 percent in 2011-12. Still, passing rates on six of the eight EOCT subjects were at 50 percent or worse in 2012.
Jon Zumbro, who has taught at Glenn Hills for 19 years, said the training has given teachers more effective methods for reaching struggling students and more structure for each lesson.
“Nineteen years ago it was probably OK to not prepare the night before or just come in and wing it,” Zumbro said. “Now I know a week ahead of time exactly what I’m going to be doing.”
The challenge ahead lies in sustainability and how much of the progress made can continue without the funding. Knowles, of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, said five factors are imperative to sustain success in reformed schools: instruction, leadership, quality of parental engagement, teacher collaboration and school climate.
He said success stories come in schools that persevere when money dries up, but more often than not success often leaves with the resources or when the staff that received the training moves on.
“One of the challenges in SIG schools or chronically failing schools is their teacher turnover and retraining new crops of teachers every year,” Knowles said.
Richmond County has developed sustainability plans for each school that includes continuing data analysis, teacher training and maintaining a high-performing principal.
It is unclear how some of the SIG-funded positions will continue after this year. SIG coordinator Jackie Hayes said his department is looking at local funding possibilities for next year.
As of now, the schools are holding onto one thing provided to all with the grant.