Model could improve student achievement

Imagine being able to choose the schools your children attend, who teaches them and even who their classmates are.

And imagine making these decisions knowing the test scores of every teacher and how well children learn in their classes.

That's what happens in Gainesville, a low-income, diverse school system lauded by both Gov. Sonny Perdue and President Bush, and at least a couple of Richmond County school board members want to learn more about it in hopes of bettering local schoolchildren.

Newly elected school board member Frank Dolan calls the "Gainesville model" a win-win situation built on transparency, identifying deficiencies and improving them.

And fellow board members Helen Minchew and Alex Howard said the model should at least be looked at to see how it works and if it can be duplicated in Richmond County.

Since implementing the model in 2002, Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe said student achievement has improved dramatically, adding that Gainesville has a large population of low-income minority schoolchildren.

"I will tell you we have gone from being one of the lowest-scoring school districts in the state, especially with our minority children, to be among the highest-scoring, but you had to change a culture for success," he said.

He has worked alongside the board, developed a common vision and started from the ground up in reforming the school system.

Elementary school teachers met and formed "academies," similar to Richmond County's magnet school program. In Gainesville, however, every elementary school became a magnet.

"When teachers are challenged to create the ideal teaching/ learning environment from the bottom up, it's theirs. I can the hold them accountable," Dr. Ballowe said.

Teachers test pupils at the beginning and end of each quarter to determine what they know and what they've learned using the same test across the school system. The average scores are posted online and in school hallways under each teacher's name.

"Whenever an administrator, a superintendent, a state superintendent, whenever we send something from the top down, people can always make an excuse if they don't like the results, but when someone creates something they can't blame anyone else," Dr. Ballowe said.

The superintendent said there have been no grievances filed by teachers complaining about the new transparency and that the transparency isn't used in a punitive nature.

"If a teacher's scores do not do better, should they stay in education?" Dr. Ballowe asked. "We do evaluate our teachers using data, and I don't apologize for that. You let people know up front this is what our children should be learning, this is how we teach it, this is how we will help you, but then we do expect results."

Parents can use that information in selecting a school and a teacher for their children, Dr. Ballowe said. They even have a say in who their children's classmates are, although these choices can make scheduling a challenge.

"You should not let the schedule drive the placement of children. You should let children and parents' interests drive the placement of children," the superintendent said. "Scheduling issues should be hard. We should be challenged. We are professional educators."

The superintendent isn't exempt from the transparency. Although state law allows for his evaluation to be confidential, he posts it online.

In areas where the school board evaluated him as weak, Dr. Ballowe updates the board monthly on progress in that area. The updates result in a "living performance plan," he said.

The Gainesville model can be duplicated, even in a school system such as Richmond County, but it takes a school board with courage, Dr. Ballowe said.

"You can't ever compromise on what's right for children for political reasons," he said. "You do what's right for children, period."

At its first meeting of the year, the Richmond County school board set student achievement as its No. 1 goal, and some board members called for greater openness and more transparency.

A shared vision is part of the first phase of the Gainesville model.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

GAINESVILLE MODEL

The Gainesville model maps out four stages to obtain student achievement:

1. Creating the "culture for success"

-- A shared vision and mission for the school board and superintendent
-- High expectations and no excuses
-- Empower and respect teachers and administrators
-- Involve parents and give them real choices
-- Community participation

2. School board and superintendent performance accountability plan

-- A set schedule for setting goals and evaluating the superintendent's progress
-- Performance objectives
-- Regular reporting to the board

3. MAGIC: Making Achievement Gains in Classroom

-- Identify standards by grade, subject and nine weeks
-- Pre-test and analyze data
-- Differentiate instruction and support
-- Post-test and analyze data

4. Program evaluation

-- Superintendent and school board evaluate each objective
-- Accountability reports on each school, teacher and child
-- Goals and accountability workshop for community focus

Source: Gainesville City Schools