Richmond County looks widely for new ways to teach

Washington-Wilkes Middle School teacher Alex Moore helps a student outside of class at Washington-Wilkes Middle School.

Richmond County public schools have improved their academic performance in recent years, as measured by state test results. Yet by and large, they continue to trail state averages on many grade levels and in most subjects.

Washington-Wilkes Mid­dle School in Washington, Ga., recently identified as one of 12 “successful middle schools” by the Georgia Part­nership for Excellence in Education, might be a model for Richmond County middle schools to imitate.

Virginia Bradshaw, Rich­mond County’s executive director for middle schools, said district staffers look for good practices wherever they can.

"We are constantly learning from the good work being done in other middle schools, and I cannot name one middle school in Georgia that we look to as a model to emulate," she said. "We participate in (Southern Asso­­ciation of Colleges and Schools) reviews and GAPSS (Geor­gia Assessment of Per­formance Standards for Schools) reviews across the state and Southern region, including our schools. Each of our schools has its strengths, which are shared regularly in our professional learning communities."

Washington-Wilkes has made the “adequate yearly progress” benchmark under the federal No Child Left Behind Act since at least the 2005-06 school year. It typically exceeds state average passing rates on Criterion-Refer­enced Compe­tency Tests in reading and math.

Richmond County middle schools generally have shown growth on CRCT reading and math tests, with the exception of eighth-grade math. For example, Murphey Middle Charter School’s eighth-grade math passing rate fell from 65 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2010, while the state rate rose from 81 percent to 83 percent. Washington-Wilkes’ rate held steady at 85 percent during the same period.

For the most part, Rich­mond County middle schools fall short of the state average. Tutt Middle School is a notable exception, beating the state passing rate in sixth-grade reading in 2007, 2009 and 2010; seventh-grade reading in 2010; and eighth-grade reading in 2008. Tutt’s eighth-graders also tied the state
reading passing rate in 2010.

The only other Richmond County middle schools that beat the state average pass rate in reading in the past four years were Hephzibah, Langford and Morgan Road. No Richmond County middle schools met or exceeded the state average in math in that period.

Contrast that with Wash­ington-Wilkes. In math, its sixth-graders topped the state rate in 2007, 2008 and 2009; seventh-graders did in 2008; and eighth-graders did in all four years. In reading, seventh-graders beat the state pass rate in 2009 and 2010; and eighth-graders did in 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Bradshaw said Richmond County constantly examines what it can do to improve student achievement, most recently putting more of an emphasis on increasing literacy and having students engage in work that requires analytical skills.

"Research suggests that to improve in these areas is the most efficient and effective way to improve student learning across the curriculum,” she said. “We are also working to increase the amount of class time students are engaged in critical thinking and gain a better balance of time spent in acquiring knowledge and actually applying knowledge to solve problems first in familiar context and then creatively in an unfamiliar context."

Washington-Wilkes educators take the recent statewide recognition in stride. They don’t consider themselves a model until they go to statewide education conferences and find out they are ahead of many other school systems in such areas as implementing the Com­mon Core Standards, which are considered more rigorous than the current Georgia Perf­ormance Standards and which will be required to be taught in all state public schools in the 2012-13 school year.

Reading teacher Joni Kei­ser attended a Common Core conference in August and was surprised at where Wilkes County stood.

“Everything they talked about, we were already doing it,” Keiser said.

Washington-Wilkes Middle succeeds where similar schools struggle
Data: 6th Grade CRCT Pass Rates 2007-2010

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