First Priority Act Plans to Turnaround Schools through Collaboration

Our schools are the starting point for great communities and tomorrow’s workforce. However you define “success,” we all can probably agree that a solid education is important for the success of our children and our state.

To make sure all of Georgia’s students receive a strong education, Governor Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly created the First Priority Act, effective July 1, 2017. The purpose of the Act is to work with the state’s lowest-ranking schools to remove barriers to education and raise student performance.

How Does the First Priority Act Work?

The Georgia Department of Education asserts that the school turnaround effort, made possible by the First Priority Act, will be a collaborative effort. In turning around low-performing schools, the local educators and community will provide first-hand perspective and actively work with the state toward a solution. The Department of Education assures us:

“The turnaround effort is a partnership between schools, districts, parents, community stakeholders, and the state.”

So what does the act do?

Through the new law, a Chief Turnaround Officer will lead the statewide turnaround effort. The Chief Turnaround Officer will, among additional tasks:

  • Manage a support system for Georgia schools in the most need
  • Identify effective and available resources related to school turnaround
  • Identify auditors and consultants to help schools and local school systems identify the root causes of low performance and implement school improvement plans

The role of Chief Turnaround Officer is a collaborative one, designed to work closely with the Department of Education, the State School Superintendent, and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. The Chief Turnaround Officer will also select experienced individuals to serve as local turnaround “coaches.”

While the Chief Turnaround Officer heads statewide efforts, turnaround coaches work specifically with a small set of schools  needing assistance. The turnaround coaches will assist in developing improvement plans, with potential strategies that include:

  • Changes in school procedures
  • Research-supported instructional strategies
  • Extended instruction time for low-performing students
  • Smaller class sizes for low-performing students
  • Strategies for parental involvement

Before any recommendations take effect, schools will gather input from parents and the community. The school will implement the plan with continued input, assistance, and monitoring from the Chief Turnaround Officer and turnaround coach.

If a school has not improved after 3 school years following its improvement plan, the Chief Turnaround Officer may require additional intervention.

What Schools are Eligible for Assistance?

Schools with the lowest average scores in the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) over the past 3 years are eligible for assistance through the First Priority Act. The CCRPI annually measures how well Georgia schools, districts, and the state itself prepare students for the next level of education.

You can find the 2017 list of turnaround-eligible schools on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement website.

Turnaround in Progress

Last November, Dr. Eric Thomas began his position as the state’s first Chief Turnaround Officer. Dr. Thomas comes to Georgia after 6 years in a similar role at the University of Virginia School Turnaround Program, and we’re excited to see how his expertise can help transform Georgia’s education.

Since starting his position in Georgia, Dr. Thomas has been hiring promising coaches to work locally with schools and assessing the needs and priorities of these schools. Beyond just noting what problems a school lack is facing, the turnaround initiative intends to uncover and address the root causes behind an issue, both academic and non-academic.

Several non-academic issues have, in fact, popped up as trends amongst the many rural schools on the list. Lacking some of the resources available in urban areas of Georgia, rural schools face difficulties with talent management, homelessness, and health care, to name a few. The school turnaround effort will connect with other efforts to address these issues and more in rural Georgia.

A Plan to Address More than Academics

So how will the initiative address these non-academic issues? One possibility is to pull resources from nearby communities to benefit students’ overall well-being. Dr. Thomas illustrates the following example:

“If there's not a local doctor that's really accessible to them, how can we leverage … the neighboring town to maybe have a doctor, or a dentist, or a mental health provider come to that school or that district maybe one day a week?”

When a school identifies gaps, the turnaround program can step in to help develop the partnerships and structure needed to fill in those gaps.

Stay Tuned for Opportunities for Parent Involvement

As Dr. Thomas and his team are building this program along the way, much is yet to be determined. Once schools and the turnaround team collectively identify the issues at the turnaround-eligible schools, a few priorities will be identified to anchor the work.

Throughout this effort, the initiative will look for opportunities of meaningful parent engagement. This isn’t just asking parents to come to conferences and PTA meetings; rather, they hope to learn from the parents what they need in order to help their children succeed in school.

Parents, get ready to join the discussion. Your ideas may affect the strategy to change your child’s education and their future.