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State grants Bulloch schools waivers
In return, schools commit to improving achievement
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Since Georgia's State Board of Education approved the Bulloch County Schools' application to be a Strategic Waivers School System last week, the 15 local public schools now have more freedom from state rules. But in return, each school has committed to making measurable improvements in student achievement over the next five years.

During its regular meeting in Atlanta Feb. 18, the state board unanimously approved Bulloch County's Strategic Waivers School System, or SWSS, application. This is the same move the Bulloch County Board of Education and local Superintendent Charles Wilson started talking about more than two years ago, in terms of creating an Investing in Education Excellence district. The state changed the name, but not the guidelines, last year.

The local school system will now enter a legally binding performance contract, from 2016 until 2021, with the state in exchange for requested exemptions from about 30 specific state laws and regulations. Not every school is bound to use every exemption, but principals have said the waivers can be used as needed to allow innovations tied to their school improvement plans.

"With a community like ours that is rich in post-secondary, business, industry and fine arts resources, this new school flexibility model can create more of the incubator-type model needed to spur innovation and increase opportunities for faculty and students," Wilson said in a press release announcing the SWSS approval.

Improvement required

In exchange for the waivers, the schools must perform higher on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state's accountability measurement tool. They must show a 3 percent reduction each year in the gap between their baseline performance index score and a perfect score of 100.

In other words, the improvement need not be a gain of 3 full points annually, which would be 3 percent of the full 100 points, but 3 percent of the gap, which is smaller and differs for each school.

SWSS and Charter System status are the two flexibility options the state is encouraging districts to choose between, as authorized by a 2010 Georgia law. School systems had to notify the state by July 15, 2015, which status they would pursue. So the Bulloch County Board of Education made that decision in November 2014 and sent a letter of intent, but the application has only been completed this month.

School systems could also remain as they are, but would lose access to rule waivers, including the maximum class size waivers that Bulloch County has taken advantage of for several years now.

The Strategic Waivers School System status opens up rule exemptions on things such as teacher certification, required classroom time and spending controls.

However, the schools cannot be exempted 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, school system officials informed parents at the Speak Up for Education event in January.

Waivers from teacher certification rules are limited by a federal requirement for highly qualified teachers in core subjects.

As of this month, more than 135 Georgia school districts have either been granted SWSS status or their letters of intent were awaiting approval, the press release notes, from Georgia Department of Education information.

Wilson and board members, such as current Chairman Mike Herndon, have said they believe that the strategic waivers option was the logical choice for the Bulloch County Schools, based on the school system's strategic plan and input received from the local public.

Two-year effort

The Bulloch began exploring its school flexibility options in November 2013. The Speak Up for Education events held in early 2014 and again this January provided information and gathered input from parents and teachers on specific school improvement plans and the strategic waivers application.

Wilson and the board began five years ago putting strategic district initiatives in place to help principals and teachers work with parents to spur innovation in their schools.

First, the district worked with the community to develop a strategic plan.

Second, all school administrators and teacher leader teams have received training from the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement.

Third, the district is working to establish true professional learning communities, or PLCs. Teachers team up to assess data such as test results and plan across grade levels and academic subjects to improve student achievement.

Other efforts mentioned in the school system's press release include an investment in data analysis and instructional technology and the creation of an Aspiring Leaders program for current assistant principals and teacher leaders preparing for future leadership roles within the district.

"The Strategic Waivers School System option is an opportunity for us to be more innovative and to work with the community to decide how we want to work with what we have, and to do what we want with the least constraints from state government," Wilson said.


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