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School officials surprised BCMS on 'focus schools' list
Bryan County Schools

Bryan County school-system leaders were surprised to see Bryan County Middle School rated as one of Georgia’s underperforming Title I schools.

BCMS was on the Georgia Department of Education’s list of 2015 Focus schools announced last week. Focus schools are the lowest 10 percent of Title I schools in terms of the achievement gap — the performance of the school’s bottom 25 percent of students compared to the state average, and the degree that gap is closing.

“We were caught off-guard to be on the list,” Bryan County Schools Superintendent Paul Brooksher said. “We do take it seriously. We’re focused on, how do we get off the list?”

One reason for the surprise is that the school system was recognized just last year as a Distinguished Title I District.

“As principal at BCMS for the last two years, we are continually focused on what is best for our students, and we have demonstrated gains in student data,” Principal Michael Tinney said.

The calculation method for Focus schools changed recently, Tinney said, with the state receiving an Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

“As we have made gains, it looks like our gains in closing the achievement gap compared to the state average are not up to their new ESEA-accepted waiver standard,” Brooksher said. “So we will take a targeted approach to look at our achievement gap data.”

Brooksher and Assistant Superintendent Brad Anderson both were unsure exactly how the Focus school ratings were calculated, since the state’s evaluation processes of school systems has changed so often in recent years.

The Georgia Milestones Assessment System replaced the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests last year as the assessment program for third through 12th grades, and the College and Career Ready Performance Index took the place of Adequate Yearly Progress three years ago as the state’s accountability measure.

“In terms of being able to pinpoint ‘that’s what we need to fix,’ it’s a little more difficult,” Anderson said. “Big companies usually implement a change, and it’s in existence for five to seven years. Consistency. If the state will be consistent with an accountability measure, it will allow us then to focus our efforts on being consistent as well.”

Anderson said he did know the designation did factor in data from the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, but not this past school year. District officials will have a training session with the state Department of Education in the next couple of months to learn more about the calculations, he said.

The state has directed the school system to roll out a plan in January to narrow its student-achievement gap.

However, Anderson said, the district will have to wait until November to receive the data the state used to determine the focus school ratings.

Rather than waiting for that information, Brooksher said, Bryan County will “be ahead of the game” by using its own data to determine how to improve student performance.

“You can call us whatever. We already have a plan,” he said. “We don’t need that designation. We use our local data to try to drive where we’re going.”

The school district already has in place a school-improvement planning process that Brooksher called “very targeted, very strategic and very systematic.”

“We understand our strengths and weaknesses as a school system — and we should,” he said. “For example, Bryan County Middle School, if we understand that minority males in mathematics are struggling, that’s a focus area already.”

Along with Bryan County Middle seeing gains in student data, Brooksher said the school is offering more programs and opportunities for students. For example, the school now has academic clubs, a Beta Club and a National Honor Society chapter.

“We don’t want any of our buildings to be perceived negatively,” Brooksher said. “What I would say is, if someone had a negative perception of the school, schedule a tour with the principal. There are great things going on out there.”

Title I provides federal funding to schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Seventy-three percent of Bryan County Middle’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch, according to Brooksher, compared to about 31 percent of Richmond Hill Middle’s enrollment.

“They serve a different population, but that doesn’t mean that population can’t learn at the same exact level of any other student,” Brooksher said.

Being designated as a Focus school does mean Bryan County Middle will receive additional Title I funding, according to Brooksher.

“The GaDOE will work with the schools identified to ensure they have the resources they need to provide a quality education for their students,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in a statement.

“OK, great — tell us that without calling us ‘Focus,’” Brooksher said. “What are those resources going to look like? What it looks like right now is just more paperwork.”

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