Originally created 11/17/00

Schools in poor areas get low marks



ATLANTA - Only one of Georgia's elementary schools with more than half of its pupils qualifying for free or reduced lunches made top marks on a statewide report card released Thursday.

Doerun Elementary in Colquitt County has a poverty level of 64 percent yet was ranked 17 out of more than 1,000 elementary schools in the state by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation's annual report card.

Poverty levels often indicate high- and low-performing schools, because impoverished pupils are more likely to lack basic skills - such as knowledge of the alphabet - to begin public school. Nationally, schools with high poverty indexes tend to score lower on standardized tests and in other academic measures.

"One of the problems this study points out is the lack of response to the accountability measures we've had in the past," said Gary Henry, a public policy analyst at Georgia State University. "There is no organized effort on the part of the state, at any level, to get resources to those schools who are really struggling."

He said the new education reform legislation has potential to help failing schools by using school-improvement teams. The teams travel the state with resources and staff development for schools struggling with low pupil achievement.

"The real question is, are we moving quickly enough?" Mr. Henry said.

The newest report card is the Public Policy Foundation's fifth review of the state's schools. Last year, more than 200,000 parents visited the foundation's Web site to download the report card.

State Superintendent Linda Schrenko did not comment on the report, stating that the Department of Education releases its own annual report card for schools. The department's latest report card is expected to be released next month.

"I believe the Department of Education report card and this report card don't do an adequate job of showing school performance," Mr. Henry said. "They show the relative levels of privilege from which those students come. They don't show how well those schools are working and what they are doing for the kids."

He said the report cards should compare pupils' test scores from the spring of one school year to the spring of the next year. Such a comparison would reflect what schools and teachers did to help pupils make improvements.

The state's new Office of Education Accountability will likely be making these kinds of comparisons for parents in the future.

"We have never said parents should look solely at this report, or others like it, to decide exactly what's happening in schools," said Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. "Parents really should go visit the school, because there really is no substitute for that."

The state's top 20 elementary schools were centered near the Atlanta area, with Kittredge Magnet School taking first place.

"More parents know more about the performance of their local high school football team than their local public schools," said Ms. McCutchen. "It is our hope schools will start now working to improve themselves so that in two years, when accountability takes effect, we will minimize the number of failing schools."

The governor's education reform legislation requires that in two years, each school in the state will receive a letter grade to reflect pupil achievement at the school. Funding and teacher salaries could be tied to the grade, which will be determined by the Office of Education Accountability. Several other states, including Florida, have a grading scale for their schools that has proven to spur parent and community involvement on the campuses.

Reach Shannon Womble at (404) 589-8424.