Retool Saturday school

Richmond County school board members say a Saturday school program that costs more than $1 million doesn't seem to be attracting many students, and isn't having any measurable effect.

Isn't it great?

Well, no, of course not. But what is great is that the school board is finally taking an interest in such things. We're encouraged that board members are asking questions, sniffing out inefficiency and speaking out about it.

"It's embarrassing to me, and you can put that in the paper," relatively new board member Frank Dolan said of the Saturday school ineffectiveness.

Dolan has nothing to be embarrassed about. Nor do his other recently elected colleagues. They're the ones asking the questions and ferreting out this information.

The Saturday remedial program for helping disadvantaged students improve their academic performance is really about movies, games and pizza, according to board member Barbara Pulliam. "I asked several kids, and they told me practically the same thing. That's a lot of money for pizza and games."

And it's incredibly inefficient - with lots of paid administrative overhead and large, fuel-guzzling school buses that transport as few as a handful of kids.

Moreover, a study earlier this year indicated no tangible benefits: There's no proof participants score any better on tests than nonparticipants.

This program may have been well-intentioned, but it's grown into a self-sustaining bureaucracy. It's feel-good money that we're throwing down the achievement gap for appearance's sake. And the kids who need help the most are being poorly served indeed.

Pulliam has become quite a watchdog. And Dolan is a business owner who can pick up the scent of a wasted dollar in the next county - but we're glad he's doing it in this one.

There are ways of making the program much more efficient and effective, such as limiting the number of schools being used. Maybe you don't have Saturday school at all, doing things after school on weekdays instead. And someone needs to audit what's being taught - perhaps as part of new Superintendent Dana Bedden's proposed audit of the district as a whole.

Perhaps the district should find out what other districts do and pick the best model.

The apparent $1.3 million Saturday school boondoggle certainly is a depressing snapshot. But the bigger picture is brighter - that we've finally got a school board that is asking tough questions.

And a new superintendent who's likely to join them.

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