Today's Tubman is far from success

Augusta's Tubman High School once was considered a premier institution of the South, drawing students from throughout Georgia and South Carolina who boarded trains and stayed with local residents to attend.

Now a middle school, Tubman attracted attention for another reason last week. With parents complaining, teachers leaving or threatening to leave and a principal out on medical leave, Richmond County school leaders stepped in, naming one of their toughest, no-nonsense principals to take over a troubled campus.

Something had to be done, Superintendent Dana Bedden said. Tubman's atmosphere and discipline problems hindered learning, and on Thursday the school board replaced first-year Principal Thomas Norris with Wayne Frazier, the principal of Bungalow Road Alternative School.

"We have a great school here," Mr. Norris said Friday. "Regardless of what happens here, we have a great school."

Mr. Norris took over as Tubman principal in August, preaching a message of optimism to get the Walton Way school off the state's "needs improvement" list, where it has been for eight years.

Despite such goals and the hiring of many new teachers, Tubman continued to have problems.

According to discipline reports, 18 pupils were found guilty by school tribunals in the first semester, only a slight drop from 20 for the same period a year ago.

Discipline was not the only challenge. According to Dr. Bedden, the school has an inordinate number of inexperienced teachers.

State-mandated restructuring created a wholesale turnover of the school's staff this school year, and the turnover continued despite staff members signing three-year contracts.

According to numbers compiled by Assistant Superintendent Missoura Ashe, nearly a quarter of the 52 teachers at Tubman have two years' experience or less. More than a third have five years or less.

These teachers more than anyone must have high-quality professional development, mentors and a support system, said Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

There seems to be another thing missing, too, he said. "It's parental involvement."

There must be a joint effort between the school, the parents and the community to want the best for their children, Mr. Hubbard said, and the "atmosphere" must become inviting.

"It's about creating a school environment where students come expecting they can learn, where teachers come expecting to be supported," he said.

Financial incentives might lure educators, but something needs to keep them at the school, Mr. Hubbard said. Changes can come, even at a low-income school, but it takes patience.

The state says it will help. The Georgia Department of Education has been monitoring the school and will assist Dr. Frazier.

"We will be sending a team down for a couple of weeks to help with the transition," spokesman Dana Tofig wrote in an e-mail. "The makeup of the team will depend on what the local superintendent needs from the (department). This will only be temporary and only to support the transition to new school leadership."

Despite fears by some that Tubman will be taken over by the state, Mr. Tofig reiterated that this will not happen.

"The state will not 'take over' a school," he said. "It's not allowed under the state constitution, and our preference is to help the school figure out how to improve and sustain that improvement themselves."

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

TUBMAN TRIVIA

- The school, which originally taught only girls, was named for its founder, Augusta's famous philanthropist, Emily Tubman (left).

- According to Historic Augusta Inc. records, Tubman was lauded as having the best technology of any school in the South, and it was the only public high school for girls in the area until becoming a coed junior high.

- Tubman is on the National Register of Historic Places and remains an important piece of Augusta's education history, said Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta Inc.

- Lloyd Preacher, the architect who designed the school, also designed the Lamar Building and Atlanta City Hall.

KEY DATES IN SCHOOL'S early history

1874: Tubman High School opens on Reynolds Street as the area's only public high school for girls.

1916: Fire burns 32 blocks and 746 buildings, including Tubman High.

1917: Tubman High re-opens on Walton Way, funded by Augusta's first bond referendum for education, for 300 girls.

1928: A three-story wing is added to accommodate growth.

Source: Historic Augusta Inc.