Forum focuses on better schools

As it stands, the education system in Richmond County is good, but over the next three years will blossom into a powerhouse to better prepare students for college and the workforce, said Superintendent Dr. Frank Roberson on Thursday evening.

"This place is ready and the grounds are fertile and we'll cultivate to grow ... dynamic individuals," Roberson said.

About 450 educators, legislators and parents discussed the issues and goals of the school system in the first State of Public Education Forum in Richmond County.

One proposed way to enrich classrooms would be to restore two of eight district employee furlough days that were implemented as a cost-saving measure in the 2010-11 budget.

The proposal drew cheers from the audience in the A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School lecture hall, which was filled mostly with educators and some parents, students and other community members.

The restored days could be supported by $16 million in federal Race to the Top education reform funding awarded to the district in October.

Roberson also reiterated his goals of achieving a 90 percent graduation rate by 2014, boosting the number of students in magnet schools from 2,100 to 10,000 and hiring more bus drivers.

While only 49.1 percent of the county's 57 schools made the federal "adequate yearly progress" benchmark for the 2009-10 academic year, Roberson said he and board members are working boost the rate to 90 percent in the next three years.

To meet those goals, Roberson said there has to be a strong link between parents, teachers and students.

"We've got to engage the PTA more in the learning process," he said. "We're transitioning from PTA being a fundraising entity to actually assisting us with the effectiveness of the education system."

These changes must be made despite the $4 billion the state underfunded the K-12 education system during the past eight years, said Marcus Downs, the director of government relations for the Georgia Association of Educators.

A higher graduation rate and a better prepared workforce could come out of Richmond County with a better state tax structure and more adequate funding in classrooms, Downs said.

Susan Parr, Augusta-Metro Chamber of Commerce's president, said parent-student relationships are also essential to prepare students for the workforce.

One of the biggest concerns for local employers is the readiness of high school graduates to use teamwork and decision making in their positions, she said.

The enthusiasm for the next three years in Richmond County schools was encouraging to Valerie Lawton, whose son is a ninth-grader at Academy of Richmond County.

"I think the goals are realistic," Lawton said. "I'm very excited that (Roberson) wants to increase the magnet schools in the area, and I'm encouraged that the standards are going to be raised."

Still, there are sure to be challenges, said parent Cedrick Johnson.

Without more state funding, he said it will be difficult to implement changes.

"They want to change the goals, but the ways are the same," he said. "It's like putting cat food in a dog food bowl."

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