When researchers working on an evaluation of Georgia’s Next Generation School Project visited the Savannah-Chatham County school district, they looked for proof that the public-private grant program had improved instruction in the schools.
“They said, ‘Don’t you have some computers or something?’” recalled Superintendent Pat Russo. “And I said, ‘No, this is about changing behaviors and attitudes.’”
The 36,000-student district targeted its aid toward staff training and forming leadership teams at six schools.
“It’s pushed us from a top-down to a bottom-up philosophy,” Mr. Russo said. “It’s allowed for us to have parents and teachers and students and community members involved in the decision process.”
Even though the district won’t receive more grant money for its efforts, the local school board in the coastal community continues to put money toward teacher release time, stipends, and other staff-development costs.
And that was the goal of the Next Generation School Project when it began in 1993: to put schools on a track toward improvement and to provide them with that extra boost they needed to get started.
Thirty Georgia districts--a mix of urban and rural, wealthy and poor--have participated in the project. Some districts involve only a handful of their schools; others believe all their schools can benefit from the project’s goals.
Since the project began in 1993, the legislature has appropriated $3.5 million, and the private sector, including such companies as NationsBank, IBM, and the Coca-Cola Co., has donated about $3 million.
To participate, the districts also have to match half of their grants with local money, but so far most of the districts have put up far more than half. The districts also have to commit to three years of involvement so the evaluators can follow student performance over time.
While 15 of the systems have used the money to support changes they hope will improve student achievement in the future, the other 15 wanted to see a more immediate return on their investment.
By examining scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, Carvin L. Brown, an education professor at the University of Georgia, has determined that students in that latter group progressed at a faster rate than in the years before the Next Generation Schools Project. Students in the participating schools, he concluded, learn an average of 11 months of material during one school year, compared with a national average of 10 months.
The project is based on nine criteria, or “best practices.” They are:
- Establish a community collaborative;
- Emphasize world-class standards;
- Personalize instruction and emphasize continuous progress;
- Emphasize vocational skills;
- Reorganize the learning environment;
- Use telecommunications and computer technology as tools;
- Attend to at-risk children and youths and their families;
- Adopt continuous improvement and evaluation processes; and
- Provide continuous staff development.
Each district, however, can interpret and implement the principles as they see fit.
“With all of our schools, we had technology needs. We wanted a lower pupil-computer ratio,” said Jamie Lawrence, an assistant superintendent of the 5,000-student Emanuel County district in the central region of the state.
The district also added a performing arts curriculum to an elementary school and hired a full-time foreign-language teacher for the elementary grades.
In addition to expanding technology and staff-development opportunities, some schools focused on such problems as high absenteeism rates or poor behavior in the classroom.
While the results are impressive, the amounts of the individual grants to the school systems have been declining, in part because more districts are signing on, but also because the project has to compete against so many other education initiatives in the state budget.
In this year’s proposed budget, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, who calls education the “passion” of his administration, has recommended $500,000 for the project, the same as last year.
“We would like to see more of a commitment from the state level,” said Susan Oliver, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, the nonprofit alliance of business, education, and government leaders that set up the project.