To reform failing schools in Richmond County and pull test scores up from single-digit passing rates, Superintendent Frank Roberson said, an overhaul will take two to three years.
“If I had it in my ability to change this within a month, that’s what I would come to you with,” Roberson told the Richmond County Board of Education at its fall retreat Friday. “I’m being realistic. We’ve got to systematically change behavior and teaching practices.”
On Friday, the board discussed “pitiful” 2012 test scores and permanent improvements. Roberson said it will take a process to change the long pattern of poor performance in Augusta, but board members said they were not willing to wait.
“It’s pitiful,” board member Frank Dolan said. “Something’s wrong somewhere. Whatever we’ve been doing is wrong. I don’t know what your plan is to dramatically shake the bag. If we need to fire all the teachers, I don’t know.”
Board members saw a color-coded chart of 2012 test scores for all schools. Every Richmond County middle school was shaded yellow in the social studies column, indicating less than 50 percent of students passed that subject.
Yellow filled the columns in math for every high school except for the two magnet schools.
The majority of elementary schools had less than 70 percent of students pass math, science and social studies, with many below 50 percent passing.
“This is something that’s really been going on the whole time I’ve been on this board,” said 12-year veteran Helen Minchew. “It’s just been a constant struggle. People are just wondering what is going on with us. We can’t just wait another two years or so. We have to get our act together. We have run out of time. We need an aggressive plan.”
Roberson said the problem with Richmond County student achievement is a combination of factors. He said the focus this year will be training teachers to give more attention to skills students are lacking. He also said communities and families must take a stronger role in education at home.
Last year, the district started administering 15-day assessments so teachers could see where each student is struggling and making progress every other week. Board member Patsy Scott said, however, that many principals she has talked to are not forcing their teachers to do them consistently. +
The district has used millions in grant money for professional learning for instructors, but teachers often have to be pulled out of class in the middle of the day to participate in the training. Classes are filled with substitute teachers, which board member Jimmy Atkins said is hurting students.
Missoura Ashe, the executive director for elementary schools, also said she sees several challenges affect teachers and student learning when she conducts classroom visits.
“Teachers are dealing with discipline problems, so the teaching goes lacking.” Ashe said, adding that teachers who administer the 15-day assessments sometimes don’t have the training to use the results effectively.
Schools also lack the money to hire full-time instructional coaches, and some are dealing with “ineffective teachers,” Ashe said.
Flaws in the employee evaluation process are now causing problems for administrators in dealing with these ineffective teachers, according to school board attorney Pete Fletcher.
Some principals are not giving teachers honest enough ratings so as to keep peace in the schools, and when teachers are later identified as ineffective, Fletcher can’t terminate them because they have been receiving positive evaluations.
Ashe couldn’t estimate the number of ineffective teachers, but she said she can recognize the faults while on classroom visits. Some principals put teachers on professional development plans to improve, but that doesn’t always work, she said.
Virginia Bradshaw, the executive director for middle schools, also said struggling students need more intensive help if the district wants to see tangible changes in test scores.
“If we could have year-round schools, I’d have year-round schools tomorrow,” Bradshaw said.
In the high schools, where more than half the students at each school failed math, there is a lot of teacher turnover, said Lynn Warr, the executive director for high schools.
This summer there were 20 teaching vacancies in high school math departments, and the school year started with about five positions left to fill, Warr said. High turnover has been a constant problem over the years, she said.
Roberson said reform is possible, but it won’t be quick. Educators are dealing with human beings, not machines, so change can not come instantly, he said. The plan is to implement more teacher training and reach out to communities to have more involvement in student achievement.
Roberson said he understands the desire for immediate change, but it’s not easy.
“I want to see the change happen now, but when you’re dealing with so many dynamics you can’t necessarily control, you have to learn how to manage it,” he said. “We are going to get this done. I just want to be realistic.”