A teacher's view of Richmond County schools

I was disappointed to read the July 27 editorial "It's the system," regarding the Richmond County school system.


As a teacher, I try to model lifelong learning by reading the paper. As a doctoral student, I read The Augusta Chronicle in particular to learn more about local politics and to keep up with current events in the area. I am not writing to make excuses or to downplay the serious state of education in the district. I am offering a different perspective.

I also agree that schools in the system are in desperate need: However, that does not mean overnight change. Nor does it mean that, as the piece implied, teachers in Richmond County are not engaged or engaging. To the contrary: There are many caring and dedicated teachers and support staff in this county working to the best of their ability to create and sustain improvement.

Since the focus of the piece was on radical change, it seems appropriate to provide a little background on some of the big ideas from the editorial.

First, while the model itself has been billed as the next new thing, the Gainesville model is based on the prior work of others who have developed school reform plans since the 1980s and earlier. It is not an "either-or" scenario -- either turn every school into a magnet school or adopt the Gainesville model. The two ideas are not competing.

THE GAINESVILLE MODEL is based on a type of magnet school concept. I had the opportunity to hear administrators from Gainesville, Ga., speak at a conference two years ago here in Augusta. They gave the same message at that time: Real change in their district was started years before the results became famous. Dr. Steven Ballowe, superintendent and champion of Gainesville schools, recently was removed from office because of fiscal concerns.

Second, any conversion to an entirely magnet school system for a district this size would require a massive undertaking involving much conversation, planning and work that could not be accomplished in short order, or as something to simply try on for size like the editorial calls for.

Further, the Gainesville model was inspired in part by a larger framework for district-wide reform from Brazosport, Texas, developed by Patricia Davenport and Gerald Anderson. Their work included research on effective schools and W. Edwards Deming's Total Quality Management approach.

As Dr. Anderson quoted in the foreword to the book Closing the Achievement Gap: No Excuses, which outlines what happened in Brazosport: "the journey from that school board meeting to those achievements was not made overnight. It was long and difficult ... and required the cooperation and leadership of administrators, parents, teachers, and school board members."

Comprehensive change in that district took almost nine years and, as the authors said, is ongoing.

Some elements are common to Gainesville, Brazosport, and any other systemic reform: Districts must embed professional development at the work location, or school level; use data in new and more effective ways; student achievement must be tracked over time; and there has to be strong support from all stakeholders.

This leads me to my next point: Without fanfare, Superintendent Dr. Dana Bedden has been working quietly this past year to lead us on the long and difficult collective journey for real change in the school system.

Although he has not called what he is doing the Gainesville model, consider what has happened behind the scenes. Transitional leadership, as researchers from Vanderbilt University have termed it, is what Dr. Bedden has been displaying this past year: He has balanced unmaking the past with simultaneously remaking new policies, and at the same time engaging the community at large.

For instance, under his leadership, Step 3 from the Gainesville model already is being addressed. Districtwide benchmark testing began last school year; the school year has been changed to a nine-week marking period format; and curriculum maps and lesson content maps already have been more closely aligned to the state standards.

For the next school term, students will be given diagnostic pre- and post-tests in addition to benchmark tests. Teachers will be given more support through the use of instructional coaches and more relevant professional learning at the school level.

The district also has purchased more effective data management software to track student improvement and instructional needs. Gainesville has been using TestGate to generate benchmark questions and data; the school system will be using DataDirector. Again, the system already is doing many things to propel us toward greatness; much of it is what you cannot see yet.

LEST WE QUICKLY forget, our former superintendent was in office for more than a decade. While he did many good things for the school system, there are other issues that cannot be ignored. We cannot expect Dr. Bedden to "radically" change things overnight that took so long to create. That would be like losing weight on a grapefruit diet. You lose a lot of water weight and temporarily feel better, but as soon as you stop being on the diet, you realize you have gained all of the weight back. The same is true of latching on to any one program or idea in education as a panacea. There is no magic bullet. Meaningful change is incremental and takes time. Gainesville took three years; Brazosport took nine.

A glance at www.building choice.org reveals information about school choice that is readily available. Among the information, the developers recommend key ideas:

1. Look at multiple sources of data.

2. Engage parents and community organizations to find out perceptions of the challenges and potential solutions.

3. Establish norms of open, honest, and safe communication.

Dr. Bedden has been instrumental in beginning the process for all three areas. In MGT's recent system audit, the district was given 92 recommendations; 27 of those have major financial implications.

To say the district is facing more challenges is an understatement. Focusing on student achievement is our ultimate goal, yet many structures inside the system must be repaired urgently. The district is moving forward to meet the challenges.

ASIDE FROM THE things we already are pursuing as a district, when comparing data from our school system to other districts, fair reporting would include the total numbers instead of merely percentages, and compare us to Muscogee, Bibb or Chatham counties instead of Columbia County. Comparing us to their demographic and size is like comparing The Chronicle to the North Augusta Star . Both papers are close in physical proximity, yet the differences are beyond compare.

To imply that parents in the Richmond County school system are uninterested is also quite far from the truth. Parents in the system may not be as well organized to advocate for their children as those in surrounding communities, but they are as concerned about their children as any other parents. Yes, we need more of their help, but evidence of their involvement can be found by talking to organizers of the many family events that have been held throughout schools in the county including Tubman, Bayvale and Tobacco Road elementary schools, among others. I can assure you that the parents we came in contact with were diverse, yet interested and engaged.

How Dr. Bedden decided to react to the newspaper is not mine to analyze. Frankly, it would have been nice to see The Chronicle reach out; publicizing the good things being done or asking about the progress being made first instead of perpetuating the stereotypes and legacy left for him to address.

WHILE I DO NOT speak for all faculty and staff in the school system, there has been, in my opinion, a collective sigh of relief in this past year. Dr. Bedden's vision, his ability to open up communications and his down-to-earth nature are obvious. Morale has been low in the district for years, as shown by the low percentage of faculty and staff completing surveys during the MGT audit. At least now someone is listening.

Unfortunately, it appears The Chronicle is giving Dr. Bedden an ultimatum: Either do something radical or we will begin to attack your credibility. Even the picture chosen for the July 26 front-page article on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test re-take results showed a puzzled expression on his face.

Dr. Bedden is not confused, and imploring him and the school system administration of to jump on yet another bandwagon is not what is best for the children, families or businesses of Richmond County. He may not make everyone happy or do everything perfectly, but he is the best chance we have for real leadership right now. It is with respect that I ask to please give Dr. Bedden a chance to do what he was hired to do and has already started to do -- change the way business is done in Richmond County schools to truly improve the future for our students.

(The writer has taught first grade at Tobacco Road Elementary School for the past five years. She has worked on the K-2 math curriculum committee, and began working on the third- to fifth-grade curriculum alignment committee this summer to develop more comprehensive benchmark tests, and more closely align the district curriculum to state standards.)