Parents of students at poor-performing schools express concern, weigh options

For students attending some of Georgia’s poorest-performing schools, improving test scores and boosting education opportunities can be an uphill battle.

“We know the school has struggled, but it’s not the fault of the children,” said Priscilla Borders, who has a second grader at Hope-Hill Elementary, in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. The school was rated as the third-worst scoring elementary school in the city based on the state’s College and Career-Ready Performance Index. That’s a report card for schools and districts, intended to let parents and others see how Georgia’s schools fare in comparison with one another. The latest was released Monday.

“Our argument has been to look at what the children need,” Borders said.

Options for parents can be limited. Depending on the district, they may seek to transfer their children to a better-performing school — if space is available and they can provide their own transportation, which can pose a hardship for some families. A growing number of charter and other alternative education options have also emerged in recent years to offer parents a choice in school.

Some educators argue factors beyond school hallways, such as poverty, can contribute to children’s performance. In general, the highest-scoring schools in metro Atlanta were in affluent areas, and low scores often showed up at schools in poor neighborhoods.

State education leaders say schools with some of the lowest scores are expected to get assistance, but will get no additional money.

The state works with schools in offering “improvement specialists” who work with school staff members to improve academic weaknesses. Schools can also offer extended learning time for students, state officials said.

“We anticipate we’ll have resources available for schools not doing as well as they hoped,” said Barbara Lunsford, associate superintendent for school improvement for the Georgia Department of Education. “And let them utilize those in an area so that they can really … fine tune how to analyze student data and figure out what needs to be done.”

The state uses factors like student test scores, academic progress and closing the gap in performance between groups of students to spit out a numerical grade of zero to 110.

Schools scoring in the 60s or below are typically categorized as “needing improvement” and would be the top priority for assistance, according to state education officials.

For the poorest-performing schools in the five largest metro districts, scores ranged from the 20s to the 60s. Grades are supposed to be roughly equivalent to the score a student gets on a test, with grades in the 70s being average, 80s good and 90s exceptional.

Elementary schools in Georgia got an overall grade of 78.5 based on the 2012-2013 school year. Middle schools got a 75 and high schools a 72. Elementary and middle schools saw slight gains in their score from the previous year, while high schools saw a decrease.

Fulton County school superintendent Robert Avossa said low-performing schools need improvement, though some did see double-digit increases from the previous year. He said he would evaluate the principals and leadership in the lower-performing schools, among other factors.

“We’ve invested a lot in teacher development and training” at poor-performing schools, he said. “We’re purchasing the right type of curriculum and support mechanism that our kids need. We’ve provided a lot of summer intervention programs I’m proud of.”

Avossa said students at underperforming schools can transfer to higher-performing schools, if there’s space available and they can provide transportation. But he doesn’t see that as the ideal approach.

“I don’t like that strategy because long-term I don’t think it’s sustainable,” Avossa said. “What we need to do is build great schools in every single one of our cities. I don’t want ZIP codes to be a determiner of school success. We have a lot of kids who (attend) county schools that are underperforming who still do well.”

Vanessa Watkins, principal of Cooper Middle School in Cobb County, the eighth-worst performing middle school in Cobb, noted her school had been on the verge of needing improvement based on the state’s previous report card, with a score of 71.8. With the latest scorecard, the school’s grade shot up to 77.3.

Watkins attributes the increase to the school reining in discipline problems as well as implementing a STEM program for students, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.

John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said schools and state education officials need to look at why students in lower-performing schools are not doing as well on the state’s tests. Students’ performance on those tests account for the bulk of the school and district scores.

“You want to see annual growth … that should be the ultimate goal,” Zauner said. “You want to measure students’ progress.”

Borders, whose son attends Hope-Hill Elementary in Atlanta, says the school has suffered from leadership instability and a lack of resources. She said a different principal has led the school in each of the past three years, and the city school system should provide a full-time counselor, social worker and Spanish teacher.

“The scores are more a reflection of what the school didn’t have to meet the needs of the children,” said Borders.

She said Atlanta Public Schools has begun to listen to parents seeking more resources for the 363-student school, and she didn’t think parents would try to transfer their children because of the state’s evaluation.

“Unfortunately, people look at the score as the basis for evaluating the school without going into the school itself,” she said. “For me personally, I know what my son can do, and I’m satisfied with the school …We still have concerns and issues, but at least we have something in place where we can keep going forward.”

By Ty Tagami and Mark Niesse contributed to this article.



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