Sara Davis keeps one eye on the page, reads aloud from the book, weaves her way through a lumbering thicket of adolescent boys standing or moving slowly around the classroom, reading silently along with their teacher.
She stops speaking, touches a boy lightly on the shoulder. Automatically, he starts reading aloud where she stopped. Across the street in this worn-out Columbus neighborhood six miles from Fort Benning is an expansive housing project. A few blocks away are strip joints and pawn shops on busy Victory
Drive. But this Baker Middle School classroom, with its roving readers, is a safe haven. Davis listens to the boy read, content that she has engaged her class for another precious hour.
"This is where I'm most needed," says Davis, who grew up nearby, under circumstances as challenging as her students'. "There were teachers who stuck it out with me, and I feel like 'm giving something back."
Across town, in a woody neighborhood of comfortable-looking, modest older homes surrounding a tidy public park, is prestigious Columbus High School. It might as well be across the galaxy. Here at Columbus High, a dedicated magnet school, students write experiments for NASA, some write books for their senior projects and others learn the laws of physics while practicing ballroom dancing. Columbus High is a Georgia School of Excellence, a National Blue Ribbon School, one of the top ranked schools in the state year after year.
Columbus High has a waiting list of students and gets applications from China, Korea, Germany, even Alabama. Baker Middle serves an embattled zone where broken homes, unemployment and crime are prevalent. Both schools are in the Muscogee County School District and neither has escaped the watchful, uncompromising eye of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (GPPF), the conservative-leaning nonprofit "think tank" which, for 12 years, has graded every public school inthe state in its annual Georgia Report Card for Parents (Check out this year's report card online at www.gppf.org)
"It was developed in response to the questions people were asking about schools," says Dr. Holly Robinson, senior vice president of the GPPF. "We were constantly hearing how hard it was to make a decision about school districts, about where to move, where to buy their next home. Our goal was to create a report card that would be easy for parents to use, solid data to help them make some of the most important decisions of their lives."
The Governor's Office of Student Achievement (OSA) produces an extensive report card, with myriad statistics, scores, numbers for everything that has to do with school and student achievement, particularly those things that apply to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), such as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). But the OSA's annual report card is much more detailed than the GPPF version, which also relies on Department of Education data but is noted for its simplicity.
"The report card was created for people who don't want as much detail or need as much information," Robinson says. "The state (OSA) is required to collect all of that data. We're not. And we do something else the state doesn't. We rank the schools against each other."
Along with the annual report card, typically released the first week in November, the GPPF releases a list of "No Excuses" schools that have performed well academically despite higher than normal poverty rates (determined by the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches).
Though it lacks the OSA's numbing maze of statistics, the GPPF report card seems extensive enough, listing per-student expenditures, school achievement scores, demographics, etc. Still, it is just a tool, not a Bible. "I always stress that there is no substitute for actually visiting schools, or talking to administrators, teachers, students or parents," Robinson says.
Georgia Trend took her advice. Using the GPPF report card we focused on six public schools in four cities: Two elementary, two middle and two high schools, one of each ranked near the top, the other near the bottom. Turns out there are tangible qualities that don't show up in the standings.
Responsibility, Rules and Regs
Holly Thursby talks discipline with the certitude of a veteran. "You can't teach or manage a classroom if it's disorganized or disorderly," says Thursby, principal of Robert A. Cross Middle Magnet School in Albany. "So we place a lot of emphasis on discipline. All students should behave appropriately. They won't be allowed to stop a teacher from teaching or a student from learning. We constantly stress personal responsibility. And if they break a rule, it's handled quickly."
Parents and students sign contracts promising to behave, or else. It's the Gospel according to Lee Canter, the national guru of assertive school discipline, and with almost everyone behaving like little saints, Thursby's teachers can teach. The system is working, based on the GPPF measuring stick. Cross Middle, with an enrollment of 616 last year, was ranked 3rd in the state on the 2004 report card in spite of having the highest poverty rate (48 percent) among the top 40 ranked middle schools. It was the only middle school in Dougherty County in 2003-2004 to meet AYP.
And once you get past the whole discipline thing, it's not so scary. "My students and I have an absolute blast every day," says Terri Satterfield, a Robert Cross science teacher and parent. Her two oldest daughters are now in high school and the youngest is in seventh grade. "I always remember that these students are going through puberty, so I don't take their attitudes too seriously. I tell parents I'll treat their kids the same way I treat mine."
Satterfield stresses resourcefulness to her students, sending them home to conduct simple experiments, like demonstrating that air has volume, and telling them they can't buy anything, just use whatever is handy at home. "The lesson is as much about problem solving as it is about air having volume," she says. "It's about getting past obstacles."
Real life obstacles are a part of everyday life at Baker Middle School (429th out of 448 middle schools on the 2004 GPPF report card, with a poverty rate of 83 percent). "For a lot of our kids, when they get home they are the responsible ones," says Sara Davis, a Columbus native who grew up with Baker principal Dr. JoAnn Brown. "School is another story, like a place to act up. So we have to teach them responsibility."
Violent outbreaks and pregnancies (even among sixth graders) have not been uncommon at Baker. Under Brown's leadership, many of the shenanigans have all but stopped, but she's had to learn to pick her battles and set priorities. It's taken some lessons in conflict resolution and a bit of creative thinking to keep the student body together, moving in a hopeful direction.
Baker is a year-round school with a student population of about 600 last year, when they began practicing single-gender education at the sixth grade level, separating the boys from the girls. Disciplinary problems went down. So they'll continue, spreading the practice with each successive year. To help the school deal with other disciplinary problems and raise achievement scores, they've added night school and Saturday classes to take the place of suspension, and a "Zeroes Aren't Permitted" or ZAP policy.
"We use our toughest teachers at night, and because there aren't too many kids there, there's no one to act out in front of," Brown says. "Now, the only way a child is going to get a zero is if the parents aren't supportive. The parents used to cuss me out for keeping their kids at night. They have to get their child to school, but we'll take them home. We're seeing results, and now instead of cussing me they say 'thank you.' "
Brown is hoping the school district will start a policy mandating three years for new teachers at one school. "Every year, this school is a training ground for new teachers, then I lose them," she says. "We owe these children some consistency."
Consistency is something Brown grew up with, coming from a family of nine kids and two loving parents who demanded she get an education. She remembers getting tossed out of class at Carver High in Columbus, along with Davis. They were close then, and they are now, two thick-skinned, tough-minded, warm-hearted women who can all but complete each other's sentences.
For Davis, stability and consistency were elusive luxuries. She remembers coming home from school a few times to find her family's furniture out on the lawn because they'd been evicted. "I grew up in a tough environment," she says. "I wasn't different from a lot of these kids here. For me, school was a refuge."
It isn't enough that students at Columbus High are held to higher than normal academic standards, work on senior projects that take a year to complete, do math packets and required reading before their freshman year, must learn how to dress for the symphony, or know which fork to use for salad. No, that isn't enough. They're also expected to complete at least 20 hours a year of community service.
"It's a holistic approach to education," explains Columbus principal Susan Bryant. "We want to develop well rounded students who understand the moral obligation to society. It's an attitude that permeates the building. Before they apply, students know what our expectations are. Then once they get here, they buy in."
Columbus High also is Shangri La for any highly motivated person using both sides of his brain, like Paul Hampton, who teaches advanced math and helps direct the drama program. In his classroom, students are helping one another solve problems, and right now Hampton is more interested in their communication skills than he is in correct or incorrect answers.
"I'm not talking about 'show your work,' " Hampton says. "They can explain it in words, numbers, pictures, I don't care. I want them to be creative, but I mostly I want them to be able to tell me how they got the answer."
This school of 1,310 students offers all of the major sports, plus girls' lacrosse and an equestrian club, not to mention the other usual suspects, and four different foreign language clubs. Ballroom dancing started after students caught the bug during a trip to Russia. There's a Dead Poets Society, a literary society and several robotics teams. Academically, the school is on another planet, with SAT scores that dwarf the national average (1160 to 1026).
While they're raising the bar at Columbus High, in Atlanta they're expanding the opportunities for students at the New Schools of Carver. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has turned small Carver High School, ranked 339 out of 345 high schools on last year's GPPF report card, into five separate small high schools, a $40 million project that is the first of its kind in the state.
The schools, just south of Turner Field, opened this year with about 100 students in each of four themed schools: early college, arts, health careers, science and technology. The fifth school, the School of Entrepreneurship, is for 10th through 12th graders who began at the old Carver High. In three years it will phase out while the other four schools (with only freshmen this year) will add 100 students each a year until they reach a capacity of 400 each.
All students will sample college-level courses at some point, but the early college students will have the opportunity to graduate from high school with 60 hours of college credit. APS tapped one of its most successful administrators, Marcene Thornton, to serve as principal of the early college. For the previous 11 years she was principal at Capitol View Elementary School, one of GPPF's No Excuses schools, a five-minute drive from Carver. She hopes to apply the lessons she learned at Capitol View to the new era at Carver, located next to an Olympics-era mixed-income complex that replaced Carver Homes, a dilapidated urban war zone.
"I learned the value of nurturing at Capitol View," Thornton says. "It was a small school, like this one, so you knew every student by name and face, knew the parents and grandparents and I used to tell people we knew the family dog. That's the value of having small schools here at Carver. There's nowhere to hide, I know you, all the teachers know you, and we're all committed to making you work up to your potential and stretch it as far as you can humanly stretch it and be successful."
Carver's early college relies heavily on interdisciplinary Content Based Units (CBUs). If the unit is world cultures, and social studies class is documenting the progress of mankind and cultures, the English class will read stories and plays that drive home the values passed on from culture to culture, and the math class will chart that human experience. Also, teachers are each assigned 16 students to advise and keep tabs on.
"So if somebody's struggling in math, we won't learn about it when the report card comes out," Thornton says. "That's how we prevent losing students along the way."
Marcene Thornton left the old school in fine shape, so fine that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings chose to pay Capitol View a visit in September. She read "If You Give a Pig a Pancake" to April Gomez's kindergarten class.
"What are the odds of that happening?" asks Gomez, Capitol View's Teacher of the Year. "Oh, that," she says of the honor. "Ah, they could've picked a name out of a hat. That's how great the faculty is."
Maybe. Probably. This is a school that ranked 8th among 1,128 elementary schools in Georgia, with a poverty rate of 89 percent. "We don't worry about what goes on outside our building, we have no control of that," says Principal Arlene Snowden. "What we can control is what goes on in here."
Like Carver, they're totally into CBUs, and the subject is world cultures. The kids in Gomez's class, in addition to learning the basics, such as their home address, are learning about children in China, grappling with questions like, "what times do Chinese kids get up for school?"
"Kindergartners have to build on what they already know, learning about themselves, about their cities, their country," Gomez says. "Now we're trying to give them a broad base, a working knowledge to build on, so they know there's more out there in the world beyond themselves."
The kids at Lyman Hall Elementary School in Gainesville are learning how to live out there in that world. More than 90 percent of the students speak Spanish and enter the school speaking little or no English. The poverty rate is 94 percent. Consequently, the school was ranked 1,124th on last year's report card.
"Think about what a tremendous challenge it is for students with limited English, just to complete the tests required by No Child Left Behind," says principal Dr. Crandall Autry, whose mission is to see that his Latino kids learn English yesterday, because NCLB is a one-language initiative. Period. No excuses, to coin a phrase.
Lyman Hall has the highest percentage of Spanish-speaking youngsters in the state, so ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is particularly critical here. And it was out of the ESOL program that one of Lyman Hall's gems emerged.
Neusa Wendt, who moved from Brazil 15 years ago, became Lyman Hall?s ESOL teacher in 1997. In 1998 she took over the school's gifted program and created the BRIDGES (for Building Resources for Intellectual Development and Guided Empowerment of Students), a gifted program for Latinos. Now, teachers at Lyman Hall and soon, she hopes, the entire Hall County School System, can identify Latino children who are gifted.
"You look for different indicators," Wendt says. "Look at creativity and work habits, humor, resourcefulness, leadership, problem solving, body language. Keep in mind; these are bright children. Most of them are translators for their parents."
The other great challenge at Lyman Hall is transience. More than 35 percent of the students who start the school year don't finish it. Some families move within the school system or the state, some back to Mexico, for better living conditions, or a better job.
"It's Maslow's Heirarchy," says David Moody, Hall County?s director of elementary education. "It's a matter of priorities. Food and shelter will always take priority over education."
And it's one of those things that never shows up in the box score.