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State releases list of focus' schools in need of improvement
2 Bulloch County schools on the list
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    The Georgia Department of Education identified a pair of Bulloch County schools on a list released Tuesday of 156 schools that need to address graduation rates and gaps in achievement between groups of students.
    William James Middle School and Julia P. Bryant Elementary School each have been recognized as “focus schools,” one of three new designations required to be used by Georgia and other states that received a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind accountability mandates.
    The label is applied to schools that have a graduation rate of less than 60 percent over the previous two years or with large gaps between highest and lowest achieving subgroups of students, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
    Both Bulloch schools were identified for gaps in achievement, according to the report.
    The performance of focus schools is one step above that of “priority” schools, the lowest-performing five percent of public schools in the state. A list of priority schools — 78 of them — was released by the department last week and includes no area schools.
    Focus schools represent the 10 percent of schools just above the priority designation; they will carry the label for three years.
    “The Georgia Department of Education will provide increased support to these schools to either improve graduation rates or narrow the achievement gap between the schools’ highest-performing and lowest-performing students,” according to a press release issued by Bulloch County Schools. “Julia P. Bryant Elementary and William James Middle were designated for the latter due to the need to narrow the achievement gap between each of the school’s highest academic achievers and their special education subgroups.”
    Over the next three years, both schools will receive additional support from the state to assist administrators and teachers in serving students, the release said — including tutoring for students and professional development for faculty and staff.
    “We were already aware of the data the state used to identify us as a focus school,” said Julia P. Bryant Elementary Principal Nate Pennington. “A great educator never stops being a student, and that means consistently working and learning new ways to teach and close the achievement gap.”
    According to educators, the focus label does not necessarily mean a school is struggling.
    “We have been recognized by the state as a Title I-Distinguished school this year, and for the past nine years,” said William James Middle School Principal Mike Yawn.  “Our appearance on the Focus list does not mean that our students and faculty are not performing.”
    “It’s the opposite,” he said. “We have students that represent the highest of the high on our top end.  We simply must continue to close the gap between their academic performance and that of our special education students. We will work with the state and accept any resources and strategies they offer to further assist our kids.” 
    Georgia is one of the 10 states granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind performance standards last month.
    In exchange for the waiver, Georgia and the other states are required to categorize public schools as focus, priority or reward schools. Georgia has added a fourth category: alert schools.
    “For the reward, priority and focus schools, the state will only evaluate Title I schools,” according to the Bulloch County Schools press release. “Alert school designees will be both Title I and non-Title I schools.”
    Thirteen of Bulloch County’s 15 schools are Title I designees.
    “Title I is the main source of federal funds that the school district receives. The funds are meant to enhance educational offerings for economically disadvantaged students,” the release said.
    The lists for “alert” and “reward” schools are expected to be released by the state in April and September respectively.
    Data from 2011 was used for this year’s evaluations of all schools.
    Other area schools designated in the focus category include Swainsboro Middle School and Jenkins County Middle School.
       
    Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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