Originally created 08/17/97

Emphasis in schools is evolving



ATLANTA -- Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, children heading back to Georgia schools will get pointers on honesty, frugality and cleanliness - and could face a harsh lesson in drivers' education, too.

New state laws place added emphasis on teaching character and good conduct in public school, while other restrictions make it harder for teens to get and keep a driver's license.

Ninth-graders face tougher graduation requirements, while 10th-graders get a little extra help toward their college entry exams, under changes instituted for the 1997-98 school year, which starts this month in most school systems.

More than half of Georgia's 180 systems - 98, to be exact - ring in the new school year this week, including 29 Monday. Children in two dozen systems are already back in class. The earliest - Early County - opened Aug. 1.

By the time the few straggler districts are back in business Sept. 2, state officials are expecting a record 1.34 million students to be enrolled in Georgia schools, about 3 percent more than in 1996-97.

"It's going to be an interesting year," predicted Bill Parsons, the new principal of Troup County High School in LaGrange.

Mr. Parsons is at least partly responsible for one of the more publicized changes this year: character curriculum in schools.

Mr. Parsons tested 10-minute-a-day character instruction on virtues such as honesty and responsibility at West Point Elementary School for several years, and found it cut down on discipline problems.

"I saw a school of 500 kids where every single child was, `yes sir, no sir,"' he said.

Discipline is also being emphasized this year in other ways.

Under a state law that took effect July 1, a student's driver's license can be suspended for threatening or hitting a teacher, possessing or selling drugs or alcohol on campus, or bringing a weapon to school.

As of Jan. 1, the driver's license of Georgians under 18 who drop out of school or have more than 10 consecutive days of unexcused absences will be suspended.

Also under a new state law, each district must have a student code of conduct.

State school Superintendent Linda Schrenko said the Department of Education was flooded with calls from districts wanting information about developing the codes after the law was signed.

"This sets the expectations for students coming in, telling them, `this is how you're going to have to behave,"' said Ms. Schrenko, who pushed the law during the 1997 legislative session. "It alerts everyone we expect consistent behavior."

Under the law, student discipline and criminal records will follow them from system to system. That will let educators know when students with discipline problems try to move into their district and attend their school.

State courts will be required to notify schools when their students are convicted of crimes, and school officials will be legally bound to report suspected criminal activity by students.

The same law provides teachers with extra legal protection, giving them immunity when they discipline children without malice - and forcing parents to pay both sides' court costs if they file suit against educators and lose.

Once they get into the classroom, students in many systems will find themselves taking longer classes. Dozens of systems have been approved for new "block" scheduling, which allows schools to offer longer classes on fewer days of the week, which gives students more choices.

Officials said in one district that piloted "block" scheduling, students were able to graduate with up to 32 credits.

The state's new high school diploma "with distinction" takes only 24 credits.

All 10th-graders this year also will get some help preparing for the closely watched Scholastic Assessment Test. The state is buying 89,000 PSAT exams to get rising 11th-graders ready for the SAT.

This year's ninth-graders will be the first class to need four years of math to graduate with a college preparatory degree. The University System of Georgia forced the state board to add the fourth year of math because it is included in new college entrance requirements.

The change will mean one less elective course for some high schoolers. College preparatory students also will no longer have the luxury of failing math without having to attend summer school, state officials noted.

Ms. Schrenko said she expects to do radio and television spots in upcoming months to remind parents and students to find out about the new requirements.

"I'm stressing over and over to high school parents, even if your child doesn't want you to do it, you need to go to school," she said.

State Board Chairman Johnny Isakson said he is expecting a renewed emphasis between parents, educators and students on improving academic achievement this year.

"There is going to be a lot of conversation about what there should be conversation on, and that's improving scores, doing better," Mr. Isakson said.