The work toward turning around one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state is not over, but after six years of efforts to boost student achievement and culture, the progress made at T.W. Josey High School is now being called a “model of reform” for the country.
On Thursday, Josey became the second high school in the nation to be recognized as an Insight School by Pearson, a title given by the education firm to schools that have shown significant progress in culture, achievement and instruction.
“Now I can take the new schools down the road that haven’t quite figured it out and say ‘Here, this is what reform looks like, look at Josey,’ ” said Deborah Rives, Pearson vice president for school services.
Over the last six years, Pearson has provided Josey with professional learning for teachers, consultants in math and literacy, and leadership training. The Pearson intervention overlapped with Josey’s three-year School Improvement Grant, a federal program that gave almost $3 million for technology, training and other reform efforts between 2010 and 2013.
Of the 100 underachieving schools Pearson is working with across the country, Rives said Josey has made some of the most remarkable improvements from discipline to student engagement – with double-digit increases in certain areas.
Since 2011, the percentage of students passing biology jumped 20 percentage points, to 44 percent. The number of chronically absent students dwindled from 219 to 96. The school has also increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses while developing a Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics program.
“When I first walked in Josey, the students couldn’t tell me what they were learning, they couldn’t articulate it,” Rives said. “The last time I was here, they couldn’t stop talking about what they were learning and how they were learning.”
During a celebration after school with cake and balloons, 12th-grader Tionna Scott said the recognition felt good.
Since she enrolled at the school in ninth grade, Scott said students were forced to look at education differently. Fights in the halls have basically stopped, and it has become a place where students want to be.
“Josey has a bad image but it’s just a stereotype,” Scott said. “They think it’s a bad school because of what happens in the neighborhood, but if you come to Josey, it’s different.”
Principal Ronald Wiggins, whom Rives called one of the most innovative principals in the country, said the reform has worked because of a buy-in from teachers and students.
One of its newest initiatives, the school launched the STEM pilot program with 50 ninth-graders this year and has applied to the Georgia Department of Education for full STEM certification. Students take advanced classes in the STEM areas, and are required to maintain a certain GPA and must limit discipline and tardy issues to stay in – much like a magnet program.
It’s just one of several interventions in place to boost student achievement that must still grow – the graduation rate hovers at 50 percent, and passing rates in certain End of Course Tests are still below 50 percent.
But Wiggins said the reform takes time and the success so far is an indicator of what’s to come.
“It sends a message to my faculty and staff and students that their work is appreciated,” Wiggins said. “Even you’re doing the right thing and it feels like it goes unnoticed, someone is always watching.”