Three Richmond County high schools struggling with low student achievement and high absenteeism are using $1 million School Improvement Grants to usher in positive change. At Glenn Hills, teachers are mentoring at-risk students. T.W. Josey has hired a school counselor and extended instructional time, and Lucy C. Laney has offered training for teachers and invested in technology.
It wasn't always easy to convince students to show up to T.W. Josey High School.
With social problems outside of school, they didn't always make academics a priority.
"Some of my kids walk past prostitutes, drug dealers and everything else going to school," Principal Ronald Wiggins said. "They have a natural fight-or-flight response to protect themselves from that. They have the drug dealers hollering at them saying, 'Why you going down to that dumb school? It's not going to do anything for you.' "
What the school needed was a new motivation for learning.
Wiggins said the effort started when he took over as principal in 2009, but real change set in last year with the $1 million federal School Improvement Grant.
With the grant, the school hired a counselor who led social and emotional periods every Wednesday.
The counselor worked with teachers to help students plan schedules, understand which credits they needed and prepare for the transition to life after high school.
The school day also changed, with 30 minutes added so every class period had five more minutes of instructional time.
The support from teachers created a new attitude for students, Wiggins said.
During the 2010-11 school year, fights decreased from 58 to 15, instances of drugs or alcohol dropped to two, and weapons violations dropped to one. That is down from 2008, when Josey had more weapons and guns on campus than any other school in the state, Wiggins said.
The absentee rate decreased to 26 percent of students missing 15 days or more from 39 percent the previous year, and the school saw a 10-point increase in the Georgia High School Writing Test passing rate.
With the grant, Josey has also expanded its Taking it to the Streets campaign, which began in 2009. Teachers and faculty meet with parents, invite them to cookouts and try to increase participation among family and community members.
Next year, with the second round of the School Improvement Grant totaling $784,000, Wiggins said the focus on preparing students for life after high school will continue.
The school still needs to make improvements on the Georgia High School Graduation Test and federal Adequate Yearly Progress standard, but Wiggins said the students must come first.
"You have to chase what's best for your students," he said. "I don't try to just test, test, test and not educate the student correctly. Set goals for them, and bring them along to a level they need to beat. We have to do things right. We have to move in the right direction."