State takeover unlikely for Gaines Elementary

Recently Gaines Elementary School was identified as one of the 104 public schools in Georgia that are eligible for a state-level intervention or takeover, leaving Clarke County teachers and parents wondering what state takeover would entail for both teachers and students.

“It will become a stressful situation for [teachers], especially not knowing if they need to worry about whether or not they will stay employed or be ‘fired’ from their positions. And if they stay employed, what will be required of them? Will their workload increase in order for the school to accomplish the goals of being a ‘passing’ school?” said Deenan Scott, a former Timothy Road Elementary School teacher of twenty years and mother of a current CCSD student.

Despite confusion, Gaines Elementary Principal Dr. Robert Ezekiel does not think that his school will face the state takeover level of intervention.

“I think many people thought that school [Gaines] would be in danger of being taken over or closed, but I think the information that was shared from the district level cleared up any of those thoughts. The current culture that we have established at Gaines allows the parents to ask us anything that concerns them. We are willing to answer any questions that our parents have,” Ezekiel said Gaines Elementary School principal Robert Ezekiel.

Georgia’s First Priority Act, passed in 2017, outlines a system where low-performing schools are identified to address their unique needs.

The law allows Georgia’s state government to appoint a Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO). The CTO, currently Dr. Eric Thomas, identifies the schools on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement lowest-performing schools list most in need of being taken over. Once these schools are identified, the CTO will work with the local school district on changes in school procedures, firing of individual administrators or teachers, implementation of a state charter school, and more.

One strong measure allowed for under the law is the “operation of the school by a nonprofit third-party operator selected by the local board of education.” Essentially, the CTO can have a private organization take control of the school. Giving them the power to fire teachers and administrators, hire who they wish, and pull funds from certain programs into others.

Students at these schools stand to lose the most. According to Georgia House Bill Number 338, the CTO must “screen all students to diagnose the factors for low performance, including, but not limited to, reading development and comprehension, math proficiencies, physical health, and mental health.”

The CTO can then “provide students who have been identified as low-performing with academic support and enrichment activities.” This includes access to programs promoting parental involvement, supports for addressing and improving mental/physical health, a learning resource center for students and guardians to strengthen academic supports, and positive behavioral interventions and supports.

Locally, Ezekiel thinks that educators are already aware of what needs to be addressed.

“The students will continue to learn in the culture that has been established during the time that I have been the principal at the school. The [College and Career Readiness Percentage Index] is primarily determined by the performance of the third, fourth, and fifth-grade students on the Georgia Milestones. Many of our students are showing growth throughout the year. We will just continue to promote a growth mindset with our students as they work to master the Georgia standards,” said Ezekiel.

Legal jargon makes this sounds like the Georgia Department of Education would like nothing more than to help students. But there are some hidden downsides. For instance, the CTO can extend mandatory hours for students or force low-performing students to attend additional afterschool programs.

Superintendent Dr. Demond Means sees state takeover differently. In a districtwide email to parents, he said that “Gaines has been named a ‘Beating the Odds’ school in each of the past two years as its academic progress surpassed that of similar schools” and that “We must do everything we can to support the children of Gaines Elementary School.”

In the same email, Means spoke about a potential partnership with the University of Virginia Turnaround Program, a nationally-recognized program that employs the school’s Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. The program uses the same strategies in schools that have saved companies from failure: leadership organized to change school practices, support and accountability, data-based Instructional infrastructure, and talent management that emboldens expectations and prioritizes turnaround needs.

While only one school in Clarke County is on the list, Dekalb County has fourteen. Clarke County has three other schools, Howard B. Stroud Elementary School, Alps Road Elementary School, and Cleveland Road Elementary School, that are within 4.7 points of being added to that list. Classic City is also on the list, but this is expected as it is for at-risk students. Gaines is currently the very last school on the list.

“Since we are currently the 104th school out of 104 schools, I believe we will not be selected. I truly believe that we are currently trending in the right direction to make gains in learning. I also feel that by participating in the UVA initiative, I will have the opportunity to strengthen my leadership practices which will filter down to student achievement,” said Ezekiel.

In the end-Clarke seems pretty safe for now. But in the words of Dr. Means, “We clearly have work to do.”