High School Policy Gets Spotlight in Report to Southern Governors

By Alan Richard — October 01, 2004 3 min read
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A report from the Southern Governors Association recommends that the region’s leaders begin a new focus on improving high schools, especially smaller schools in rural areas.

“New Traditions: Options for Rural High School Excellence” is scheduled to be available from the Southern Governors’ Association.

The report, financed by a grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, urges governors to form statewide commissions on high school improvement, give more visibility to upgrading education at the secondary level, and emphasize such policy areas as dropout prevention and school leadership.

“Democratic governors, Republican governors are saying … we’ve got to really pay attention to our public schools in the South, because the vitality of our communities and the vitality of our economy really depends on it,” said Ferrel Guillory, a North Carolina journalist and scholar who wrote the report for the Washington-based SGA.

The SGA partnered with the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board and the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va., to visit successful high school programs in Maine, Mississippi, New York, and North Carolina and collect information for the report.

The report was scheduled to be released Sept. 13 at the Southern governors’ annual meeting, in Richmond, Va. Governors and their advisers were expected to discuss the report and its implications.

Examples of Progress

Governors in several states are preparing major policy proposals on high school improvement for 2005. They are drawing from the report to develop “a statewide vision for high schools,” said Elizabeth G. Schneider, the executive director of the Washington-based SGA.

For example, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, a Democrat, is joining with her state’s K-12 and higher education boards to create a high school redesign commission that will begin work next month.

The initiative could lead to more innovation and higher numbers of high school graduates who leave school with strong skills, said Donna Nola- Ganey, Louisiana’s assistant state superintendent for school and community support.

A Guide for Governors

A report on rural high school improvement commissioned by the Southern Governors Association offers governors what it terms a “short, yet powerfully focused list of recommendations.”

  • Make reducing the dropout rate an urgent priority.
  • Invest in leadership preparation for principals.
  • Upgrade teacher professionalism.
  • Broaden the vision of assessment to include alternative methods.
  • Establish a state-level catalyst for change, such as reform commission.

SOURCE: Southern Governors Association

In compiling the report, visitors from nine SGA member states saw ideas they hope can be translated into promising practices in their own states. After the visits, representatives from many of the association’s 16 member states and two U.S. territories met to discuss what they saw.

At rural Swain County High School in Bryson City, N.C., visitors found a school where students use technology to study and present information about their community’s history. A career-oriented class on drafting was combined with a geometry class to help students see the links between the subjects, Mr. Guillory said.

In Mississippi, visitors found a principal at Shaw High School in the Delta region who took the time to help each student set goals for college or work. The principal’s effort is credited with raising test scores and graduation rates, said Lee Stevens, the SGA’s legislative director for education, health, and human services.

Shaw High’s remote location didn’t prevent the school from hiring good teachers, as the school helps teachers earn their master’s degrees while working, Ms. Schneider said.

Visitors also examined the formation of small learning communities within large campuses at the Julia Richman Education Complex in New York City, and they visited Poland Regional High School in Poland, Maine.

Ms. Schneider said she hopes the effort will help state leaders improve high schools across the South, and inspire more interest and funding from the Gates Foundation.

“We are hoping that this will open the door for further experimentation and for their support of further projects in the South, particularly in rural areas,” she said.

Better rural high schools mean better futures for the region’s people, said Mr. Guillory. He directs the Southern politics, media, and public-life program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism school and is a senior fellow for a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit research firm, MDC Inc.

“We know in the South that we’ve got to align our schools with the demands of the new economy,” he said. “We don’t have anybody to waste.”

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