Educators scrambling to make sense of the new list of needs-improvement schools in Richmond County decided one thing Wednesday: All parents will have to register children at their zoned school today.
"If we determine that they are going to be offered school choice, we will send them a letter," Superintendent Charles Larke said. "We will move the registration packet to the receiving school."
Registration will hold new challenges as the district juggles how to accommodate school choice, required under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
After two delays, the needs-improvement list was released Tuesday night, and school officials spent Wednesday defending the district's poor performance and planning for pupil transfers.
More than 750 parents asked for transfers for their children based on last year's list of 17 needs-improvement schools. After Tuesday's update, 13 of those schools remained and must offer transfers to parents who requested it.
Complicating the issue, six schools made the list for the second year, and federal law calls for them to offer choice immediately. Richmond County officials say, however, that a 1972 desegregation order could allow them to postpone action on those schools this year.
Tylisha Sampson expects her daughter to be transferred this year. Takoma, 8, attends Jenkins-White Elementary School, which has failed to make adequate yearly progress for seven-straight years. Ms. Sampson said she is willing to do whatever it takes to get her daughter into a better school.
"The schools like Jenkins-White are not teaching the basics. My daughter is in second grade and they haven't even started multiplication yet," Ms. Sampson said.
Dr. Larke defended the district's poor showing in a list that had 28 of the county's 38 Title I schools failing to make adequately yearly progress. At 74 percent, Richmond County had one of the highest failure rates in the state.
The superintendent said many of the needs-improvement schools improved test scores but failed simply because of attendance problems.
"There's an impression that students have done such a poor job of achievement, and it's not quite accurate," Dr. Larke said. "The public should know when it's attendance and when it's student achievement."
An analysis by The Augusta Chronicle shows nine of those 28 schools met testing standards but had attendance problems that labeled them needs-improvement. Besides testing scores, a school can make the list if it doesn't have at least 95 percent participation on the reading and math tests or too many pupils miss too many days of class.
Those schools that had problems only with attendance were Glenn Hills High School and Garrett, Hains, McBean, Milledge, Monte Sano, Southside, Wheeless Road and Windsor Spring elementary schools.
School board members had varied reactions to the county's poor showing.
"It was quite a disappointment," Barbara Padgett said. "I think it means we have a lot of work to do ... but we can't do it alone. I've been on the board for 13 years, and I know that it's got to be a partnership between the schools and the parents at home."
Board member Kenneth J. Echols Sr. said the numbers sometimes cause unnecessary panic.
"The numbers may not be telling the whole story," he said. "Irregardless, we're going to have some underperforming schools, and we need to fix that and fix it quick."
Dr. Larke said he is writing to parents to inform them whether their school met academic achievement goals. He will also address attendance.
"We want parents ... to know that we need children in school every day if possible," he said.
Dr. Larke blames the high absentee rates on last year's outbreak of flu that kept many children home.
"Understand this: Our community was hit harder than most with that flu virus," he said.
The school board addressed the attendance problem by reducing the number of allowable unexcused absences from 24 to 16 for the upcoming school year, he said. Board members are considering reducing that to 15 days to match state standards, and Dr. Larke is threatening to prosecute pupils for truancy through the juvenile justice system.
"If students are not in class, they cannot learn," he said.
For schools failing to improve test scores, teachers continue to offer tutoring through the After-School Academy and Saturday Scholars Program, which provides support in reading and math. Dr. Larke said other supplemental services will be ready for needs-improvement schools later this month.
The superintendent said his goal has always been to have no school on the list by 2006.
"You aim high," he said.
Principals at some schools spent more time Wednesday preparing for registration than planning for pupil transfers. Registration is being held at each school today from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Patricia Points, the principal of McBean Elementary School, said she had not received word that her school remained on the needs-improvement list.
Nathaniel Dunn, the acting principal at Hains Elementary, said he and the school's teachers had discussed what they could do to help the school from falling on the list again.
"It's not something we can correct in one year. (We) have to correct a certain amount each year," he said.
He said whether or not parents had their children stay at his school, he would encourage them to work closely with their children.
"We're not off the hook, and I don't mean that in a negative way," Mr. Dunn said. "But parents aren't either. (We) can't allow them to sit at home and not help."
Richmond County parents with questions should call the Board of Education at (706) 737-7200.
Staff Writers Johnny Edwards and MaryAnne Pysson contributed to this article.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.