Originally created 01/27/99

Council's research shows school's woes



ATLANTA -- A new report says 100 of Georgia's 1,800 public schools are chronically low-achieving, with high poverty, absenteeism and low reading scores heading the list of common problems.

The report, released Tuesday by the Council for School Performance, is one of the first to quantify the situation state officials face as they begin considering how to hold schools more accountable for how their students perform.

It also adds to the body of evidence suggesting middle schools are the biggest problem area. About 12 percent of Georgia's middle schools were considered consistently low-performing by the council.

Gary Henry, research director of the council and head of Georgia State University's Applied Research Center, said the report gives lawmakers some idea of what they're up against when they talk about school accountability.

"It's high poverty, high absenteeism, and it's not just a problem we feel like we can deal with by just targeting reading, and just targeting math," Mr. Henry said.

"Without question, in my mind, the priority is at the middle school level," he added.

Although the council said 42 elementary, 49 middle and nine high schools were consistently low achieving, the group would not release a list of those schools. Mr. Henry would only say they are scattered throughout the state.

The council, like the Department of Education and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, releases a report card annually on the state's 1,800 schools.

The report card contains Education Department information and some the council develops on its own concerning test scores, absenteeism, parental involvement, teacher training and school violence.

The reports are available on the Internet at arcweb.gsu.edu/csp.

Because of the renewed push for school accountability by politicians, the council set criteria this year to judge which campuses, over three years, were consistently performing poorly.

The common threads among low-performing elementary schools were a high rate of poverty -- 80 percent of children get free or reduced lunches -- low test scores and a 32 percent rate of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is defined by the council as missing 10 or more days of school a year.

At the middle school level, the problems are similar, only worse in some cases. Only 27 percent of pupils in struggling middle schools read above the national average, and nearly 45 percent are chronically absent. Also, middle-school pupils on those campuses are far more likely to have had violence violations or to have been referred to juvenile justice authorities.

In low-achieving high schools, about half of the students missed at least 10 days, and the dropout rate is about 50 percent higher than on campuses with better performance.

"I'm not surprised at those issues, and I would probably add a couple of more," responded Senate Education Chairman Richard Marable, D-Rome, a special education teacher at Rome High School.

Barbara Christmas, director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher organization, said one of the main problems hasn't changed in recent years.

"It seems to me absenteeism is still a major concern," she said.

The council has been pointing to the problem for years, without much change in the numbers for low-performing districts.

"The chronic absenteeism is unbelievably high," Mr. Henry said. "We have to do some basic things; we need to get the kids back in school."

Another major problem, particularly in middle schools, is reading. Lawmakers and the state Board of Education have been working on that issue with grants to schools for a reading-intensive curriculum.

Gov. Roy Barnes also has requested greatly expanded funding for after-school reading programs.

Mr. Henry said reports like the council's give lawmakers and school officials ideas about where to target resources.

Mr. Marable is hoping to take a step toward fixing those schools this year. He has re-filed legislation this session to create education "care teams" of experts to go into low-achieving schools and help turn them around.

Mr. Marable's proposal passed the General Assembly in 1998 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Zell Miller because of amendments tacked onto the bill.

The measure would create "care teams" in four areas of the state, at a cost of $2.5 million. Virtually the entire Senate has signed on to co-sponsor the bill, and it has the backing of state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.