What are the biggest education issues this year?
It’s Policy and Research Director Susan Walker’s job to figure that out.
Walker, from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE), recently released the top education concerns for 2008.
During a recent annual Media Symposium, Walker focused on two of her top issues: early childhood education and the changing demographic of students in Georgia’s public school system.
"We look at issues that are hot across the country, as well as specific Georgia issues," she said. "We look at lots of research to help us as well, including regional, state, national and even some international information."
Internationally, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 21 industrialized nations for overall child wellbeing. Nationally, Georgia ranks 41st out of the 50 states.
"This is a far cry from where we need to be," she said.
One example Walker gave, according to Georgia Family Connection, is that one in 10 children don’t have any health insurance.
But locally, Bryan County Family Connections Director Tara Jennings said the county is doing well when compared to the state numbers.
"The numbers I see, we’re top of the mark," she said. "For example, almost 98 to 99 percent of Bryan County children are immunized before they start school."
Jennings said the county offers plenty of quality pre-k programs and, according to her, has been ‘stepping up the mark’ for early childhood education. However, United Way for Bryan County Director Janice Blunt said there’s always room for improvement.
"The real problem is those working poor, who do not qualify for government programs," Blunt said. "The Department of Family and Children’s Services has some funded childcare for welfare to work moms, but there is a waiting list. Other options include Bryan County’s HeadStart, which is federally funded for low-income children, and there’s pre-k, which is state funded."
In 2006, Bryan County had a 4-year-old population of 373 children and 280 of them, or 75 percent, were enrolled in pre-k, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Roughly 50 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled statewide.
"The United Way is concentrating our funding programs on education and early childhood during the next year. I am most concerned about quality and affordable childcare," Blunt said.
Walker said it is crucial for the state to ensure access to quality healthcare for all women and children, expand the pre-k program to include more 4-year-olds and create more early learning opportunities for 3-year-olds.
Additionally, Walker said Georgia needs to be looking at the rapidly changing demographic of its students.
Statewide, Caucasian students are decreasing in numbers while African American and Hispanic students are on the rise. In the last 15 years, Georgia’s Latino population increased by 300 percent and the Hispanic population is expected to grow by 143 percent by 2015.
In Bryan County, for the 2006-2007 school year, Caucasian students are the majority, at 75 percent. Statewide, Caucasian students only make up 47 percent of the population. Black students make up 16 percent of Bryan County’s district, versus 38 percent statewide; and Hispanic students make up three percent, versus nine percent statewide.
Walker said students are also increasing in economic diversity.
"We’re not the same Georgia anymore," she said, noting 54 percent of public school students live in poverty. "Low-income children are the South’s new majority."
In 2007, Bryan County had 6,239 students enrolled and 31 percent, or around 1,934 students, were economically disadvantaged, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
Superintendent Dr. Sallie Brewer said the district doesn’t address children based on race or income levels.
"We mean it when we say we have non-discrimination in our school system" she said. "We base every child on what each of them needs. The education program in our schools is designed for all children’s needs."
Statewide, 50 percent of public school students qualified for the free/reduced lunch program. In Bryan County, Brewer said the numbers of local students enrolled in the program range from 15.66 percent to 61.61 percent from one of the county to the other.
So how well is Georgia educating the new demographics of students?
"While scores are improving, achievement gaps exist," Walker said. "Lower income students are performing at lower rates."
State standardized tests for 8th grade math students showed a 15 percent gap in scores between Caucasian and minority students. When those results compared economically disadvantaged students to non-disadvantaged students, the gap increased to 20 percent.
Bryan County 8th grade math results in 2007 showed much smaller gaps – but disparity still exists.
In the local district, 56 percent of both Caucasian and Hispanic students and 52 percent of black students met the 8th grade math standards, or a zero to four percent gap in achievement. When comparing economically disadvantaged to non-disadvantaged 8th graders, there was a 10 percent gap in math scores. While 58 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed the 8th grade writing assessment, 71 percent of the non-disadvantaged students passed. Caucasian and non-disadvantaged students also had much higher percentages of students who exceeded the state standards.
"If today’s achievement gaps don’t start closing, it will lead to economic gaps tomorrow," Walker said, pointing to answers such as making specific plans for a growing diversity and equal resources for low-income students.
"We need to celebrate success, and use those successful schools as examples. But the reality is, action needs to happen," she said.
Other issues to watch out for in 2008 include teacher quality, charter schools and the options those can provide, school funding, No Child Left Behind, increasing high school expectations, building a better information system statewide and the creation of an education plan that’s consistent across the board.