Originally created 12/13/04

Jefferson boasts tradition of academic excellence



JEFFERSON, Ga. - Teaching is a tradition for many families in Jefferson, and that's one reason academic excellence also is a tradition for the city's school system.

The Jefferson City School System tied Oconee County for the highest average SAT score in the state in the last rankings - a 1077 average, compared with a state average of 987. It's not the first time the city has held top bragging rights, and school officials say tradition and continuity are two reasons for their success.

Beverly Keen, for example, said she's been teaching in the Jefferson City School System for "only" 22 years, while her husband, Jack, has been teaching in it for 40 years. Their daughter, Karen Porter, is the media specialist and a former math teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, and granddaughter Savannah Porter, a senior at Jefferson High School, has ambitions of becoming a teacher one day.

Educators say that kind of legacy contributes to student achievement because teacher turnover can disrupt the classroom.

The system regularly posts high standardized test scores and recently received a national award for its use of digital technology in its central office. Jefferson High School had a 79 percent graduation rate last year, well above the state average of 65.4 percent.

The system also credits its emphasis on a well-rounded education. Officials cite scientific research that shows fine arts, physical activity and foreign language affect brain development, creativity and the ability to grasp complex patterns that contribute to understanding math, as well as language ability that can affect reading and writing achievement.

The high school's "Total Person" program gives students an extra seal on their diplomas if they participate in certain activities, such as attending the opera or hiking in the Appalachian mountains, outside of school during their junior and senior years.

That emphasis beyond just core math and reading classes also reaches the elementary school level, where school officials have stood by their music, art, physical education and Spanish foreign-language programs - at a time when many school districts sacrificed them in the face of budget cuts.

Other successful programs include a fifth-grade academy, which gives the class a year to gradually make the transition to middle-school activities. The fifth graders begin to use lockers halfway through the year, for example.

Jefferson educators say the high standards have become expected by the community.

"I don't want it to fail on my watch," school board President Ronnie Hopkins said. "I don't want it to go down while I'm at the helm."