Richmond County's T. Harry Garrett Elementary school was one of three schools in the state highlighted Wednesday for successfully reducing its student-teacher ratio in lower grades.
Gov. Roy Barnes, with his wife Marie, visited Garrett to congratulate officials for being ahead of schedule in lowering class sizes - which is part of his education reform bill.
Critics, however, say the governor's visits - which included Homer and Savannah Wednesday and five other school districts throughout the week - is a struggle to put a positive spin on a bill that is proving unpopular.
Mr. Barnes said the schools deserve recognition.
"I wanted to highlight, particularly, those schools that have gone beyond the call of duty and gotten ahead of the curve in reducing class sizes," Mr. Barnes said. "We know that class size reduction in the first three grades, along with a good teacher are the two most important ingredients for children being able to learn to read and the statistics are overwhelming in this regard.
"The statistics are, if a child is on grade-level by the end of grade three, (he has) an 80 percent chance of completing school," Mr. Barnes said. "If they are not on grade level by the end of grade three, they have a 70 percent chance of never finishing high school."
But Senate Republican Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah said the visits are part of "a campaign to try to turn public opinion around, because those at the grass roots don't like the bill. He's saying `lower class sizes,' but the people are hearing `raise property taxes.' He says they're rewarding teachers, but teachers feel they are being punished."
Mr. Barnes said that's wrong.
"I'm sorry Eric Johnson is for big classes, for low standards and for no achievement in education. That's a sad commentary and a bad example," Mr. Barnes said. "The beneficiary of lowered classes is not me. It's not the teacher and principals, the beneficiaries are the children."
Augusta officials welcomed the governor's visit.
Mary Alice King, principal of Garrett, said her school was honored to have been chosen.
She said she has seen a change since classes were reduced. The class the governor visited now has 17 students per teacher - down from 22.
"I've seen tremendous improvement, almost from day one, in children who were behavioral problems last year in classes that had 25 students," Ms. King said. "The students are getting more attention. I wish we could do it across the board at every school in Richmond County."
Richmond County Superintendent Charles Larke said the district is working to reduce classes in the future of all lower grades. Richmond County began reducing classes sizes last year.
"With a reduction in class sizes, I think you'll see an improvement in student achievement, but it won't be overnight," Dr. Larke said.
The governor said the bill is about common sense.
"We know that education reform is about setting high standards and expecting much out of students," he said. "It's about saying every child can and must learn. It is about measuring by accountability. It's about reducing class size. It's about restoring discipline, it's about creating school councils so that parents and teacher and business community can be involved ... because it should be a community effort.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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