In the opening assembly, Thursday night’s Speak Up for Education focused on a plan to make the Bulloch County Schools a Strategic Waivers School System. But in breakout sessions that followed, most of the talk was about individual schools’ ongoing efforts to improve, and principals said they don’t know yet what waivers from state rules they might use.
The district is asking the State Board of Education for a five-year contract granting waivers from about 30 specific state laws and regulations on things as class sizes, teacher certification, required classroom time and spending controls. In return, each school must either score high on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, or close the gap between its current score and 100 percent by 3 percent annually.
Strategic Waivers School System status is one of two “flexibility options” the state government is encouraging districts to choose under a 2010 Georgia law. Speaking in the Statesboro High School auditorium, Bulloch County Board of Education Chairman Mike Herndon said this approach gives schools freedom “to try out-of-the-box, creative and new ideas” they believe are best to educate their students.
“But here’s the scary part of it,” Herndon said. “Coming from a business perspective, it’s not that scary to me because we kind of have to do it all the time, but with the freedom to run with new ideas comes the freedom to fail with that idea.”
At least 210 people attended the forum, hosted this year by Statesboro High. After parents and other participants followed the presenters, mostly principals, to classrooms assigned to the 15 schools, much of the talk was about innovations.
But many of the new efforts are already underway and have been done without waivers. This year, the Bulloch County Board of Education used local money, reducing its reserve, to replace $2.2 million in per-student funding previously cut by the state. The local board also assigned more cash for potentially hiring counselors and specialty teachers, but let principals and leadership teams decide how to use it.
With its share, Southeast Bulloch Middle School added a chorus program, an individualized reading and English intervention course, a teaching paraprofessional for help in other subjects and another staff member who does certain paperwork counselors used to do, allowing them to spend more time counseling students. The school also increased its attendance clerk to full-time.
Southeast Bulloch Middle School’s results on the 2015 Georgia Milestones tests were already some of the county’s best, as seen in in a chart Dr. Torian White, the principal, showed parents. But science is one subject where the chart showed the school has room to improve “along with the state,” as White put it, because it has been a weak area for the Georgia’s middle school students on average.
White noted the school’s efforts to improve students’ reading comprehension, as well as science. He also had parents brainstorm for things the school should stop, start or continue.
This principal didn’t talk about waivers as such until asked about them.
“Instead of getting into the minutiae of what the waivers are and how they can be used, we just need to focus on what do we want to see changed in our school that’s going to help children, and then we’ll work with our district office on identifying the waivers that will help us get there, basically,” White said.
“But I am glad to see, though, that we are allowed to think out of the box when it comes to funding our schools, asking for additional support and resources,” he said. “And so, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
William James Middle School faces other challenges. In 2015, the Georgia Department of Education designated William James Middle School as a Focus school for another three years. Comprising 10 percent of Georgia schools in the federal Title I program, Focus schools receive extra assistance because of lagging achievement among their students in various ethnic, language minority, special education or economically disadvantaged subgroups.
Under the Strategic Waivers School System, or SWSS, contract a school in William James Middle School’s situation is expected only to show sufficient growth and reduce the achievement gaps.
“I’d rather be judged on growth for all kids than you telling me here’s a bar that I want every kid to jump over. …,” said WJMS Principal Mike Yawn. “I think we’re being tasked to do what we should be tasked to do as educators, and that is show growth for everybody, make sure kids learn when they’re in school.”
Yawn said he sees a role for the flexibility waivers could provide, such as by allowing a school to provide added instruction through digital courses, working with another school, or bringing in someone from the community with specific knowledge.
“I think the important part with waivers is, you don’t take a list of waivers and decide what all you want to do with the waivers,” Yawn said. “You take a school improvement plan and as you start to implement a school improvement plan, if barriers come up, then you search the waivers to see if there’s something you can help with.”
The Bulloch County Schools are applying for waivers that most other would-be SWSS districts in the state are also seeking, said Monica Lanier, the school system’s assistant superintendent for organizational effectiveness.
The schools cannot get waivers from any federal law or regulation, any civil rights protections, insurance requirements, or any law that protects the health and safety of students and employees, Lanier noted in the opening assembly.
Waivers from teacher certification requirements are limited by a federal requirement for highly qualified teachers in core subjects. So the school system may be able to hire people with experience but no teaching certificate to teach career, technical or agricultural education classes, but must have certified teachers in math, science, social studies, reading and language classes, Lanier said.
Adrianne McCollar attended the WJMS session as a parent. She has a child at the middle school and two others at Mattie Lively Elementary School.
“I think that it could be a great effort because it’s going to help teachers stop having to focus on testing the kids as much and be able to focus on creativity,” McCollar said, expressing hope for the focus on individual school improvement.
But she said she is concerned about the consequences if schools do not make the required level of progress. Under the contracts, the state can assign failing schools to a charter board, another school system, or a private for-profit or nonprofit organization.
“My biggest fear is that we have five years to make this thing work and if we don’t make it work in five years, then we’re possibly looking at, worst-case scenario, some private company coming in and trying to make money off our children,” McCollar said.
But a state-ordered takeover of a Bulloch County school will not happen, asserts Superintendent Charles Wilson. He heard similar concerns in general breakout session he held for people not attending one of the school sessions.
“Everything we’ve been building is about our continuous feedback, continuous improvement model, fully accountable, fully transparent, and everybody has been equipped with the ability to define their goals, monitor them and work them,” he said Thursday. “Shame on us if we allow that to happen, and it’s not going to happen while I’m here.”
The Bulloch County Board of Education is slated to vote Feb. 11 on the SWSS application, which could then be considered by the state board Feb. 18, Wilson said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.