Create an 'Augusta model'

When you're behind by a couple of touchdowns late in the game, you don't run the ball.

Likewise, the Richmond County school district is behind, and it's getting late. It needs to put the ball up in the air.

In football, the West Coast offense is all the rage.

In education, it's the Gainesville model.

The 5,000-student Gainesville district near Atlanta has essentially converted its schools to magnets called "academies" designed by teachers and other locals to appeal to student needs and wants.

Students get tested at the start of the year to see what they need to work on - then again at the end of the year to see if they've made progress. How radically basic!

There's also an important element of school choice in the Gainesville model: Parents can sign their students up for certain schools, and even for specific teachers.

But accountability - so lacking under the regime of former Richmond County School Superintendent Charles Larke - is the keystone of the Gainesville model. We had to send in the CIA to get any information about Larke's annual evaluation; in contrast, Gainesville Superintendent Steven Ballowe's was put online for everyone to see.

Several Richmond County school board members have visited Gainesville to see the district in action. New board member Frank Dolan is nearly uncontainable in his excitement for it, and we don't blame him. We need bold ideas to fix Richmond County's school problems - which have included having all 10 middle schools on the state's "needs improvement" list.

But this is why we have elections - to get new blood and fresh eyes and untempered enthusiasm such as Dolan's.

Fact is, Dolan is stumping for Gainesville super Ballowe to become Richmond County's next superintendent. Applications are open through March.

The thing is, we would encourage other elected officials, such as Augusta commissioners, to get on the bandwagon with Dolan. This is not just a board of education issue; the quality of Augusta's schools will say a lot about the city's economic future. It's an open secret that perhaps the biggest drain on population here, particularly of young families, has been the school system.

That's a community-wide challenge that requires everyone's participation.

"As Augusta continues to move forward," says Mayor Deke Copenhaver, "one of the most crucial issues facing our community is the hiring of a new school superintendent. With regards to increasing our efforts to bring in new residents, it is absolutely essential that we improve the quality of our schools and that we, as a community, renew our focus on the educational needs of our children."

Board members are talking about having a town hall meeting of sorts to introduce the Gainesville model to the public. Great idea. Do it.

Even so, the Gainesville model can't be picked up and dumped into Augusta - at more than 33,000 students, it's simply a different animal. What we need to do is borrow the best elements of it and create an Augusta model.

We should be doing that anyway - especially since the Georgia General Assembly may soon make it possible for entire school districts to act like "charter" schools, which are able to throw off many state mandates and feature more local control and creativity. Credit Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for that tremendous idea.

And give credit to the Richmond County Board of Education for taking a look at someone else's playbook - and considering throwing the ball down the field.

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