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School officials prefer new accountability plan

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

At least one local school district is onboard with a plan to offer students federally-funded tutoring if its schools fail to meet federal standards.

"Henry County Schools prefers supplemental education services, because it provides additional academic resources to lower-achieving students," said Connie Rutherford, spokeswoman for Henry County Schools. "In past years, more parents have chosen supplemental services instead of school choice."

Georgia was recently approved to use a new "differentiated accountability" plan to hold schools accountable for student academic achievement.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced on July 1 that Georgia was one of six states to implement the plan. The plan, in its infancy, would allow schools that did not meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, to offer tutoring or supplemental education services as opposed to offering the previously required school choice option.

"This flexibility will allow us to provide federally-funded services to more students in more schools," said State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox. "This also gives us the opportunity to stop treating all schools the same under NCLB - a change that is much needed in the law. I'm grateful to Secretary Spellings and the U.S. Department of Education for choosing Georgia as one of the pilot states."

Under the plan, school systems will have the option of offering free tutoring to students at first-year Needs Improvement (NI) schools, which are schools that did not meet state requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The systems can offer public school choice to students at second-year, Needs Improvement schools. Previously, NCLB required public school choice be offered first.

Systems that still want to offer choice first are allowed to do it under the state's plan. The plan, however, does not apply to schools that were in NI status at any level during the 2007-08 school year.

"Differentiated accountability" also creates achievement-based tiers of consequences for third- or fourth-year NI schools in "corrective action" status of AYP. NI schools of five or more years will now be labeled "state-directed" schools.

Georgia was one of 17 states to apply for the "differentiated accountability" plan flexibility. Due to federal requirements, the program must begin immediately, according to Matt Cardoza of the Georgia Department of Education.

As a result, Cardoza said the state's AYP report will have to be reconfigured to include the changes made by the "differentiated accountability" plan. The report will be released later this year than in past years, around the week of July 21-25.

Since NCLB was enacted in 2002, the parents of a student at a NI school could request a transfer to a higher-performing school. But for many of Georgia's students, public school choice was not an option, according to Cardoza.

There were 69 systems in 2007 that had at least one school that should have offered choice under NCLB. In 34 of those systems, however, choice was not offered at all.

Cardoza said that result was mostly because there was no other school to which students could be sent. He said that even in school systems that can offer choice, it was not a widely used option.

In 2007, there were about 145,000 students statewide who attended NI schools and should have been offered choice under NCLB, but only about 4,500 (3 percent) of those students transferred. That same year, about 10,500 (13 percent of eligible students) chose free tutoring, which was previously only available to economically-disadvantaged students.

The Clayton County School System offers supplemental services and school choice where mandated by No Child Left Behind, according to school system spokesman Charles White.

In Henry County, parents had the option of sending their children to one of two pre-determined schools. Only those schools that made AYP, and were not at capacity, were available to accept student transfers, said Connie Rutherford, Henry County Schools spokeswoman.

With the exception of one year," she said, "Henry County Schools offered the option of school choice for non-Title I schools."

Henry has not offered tutoring in the past four years, however, because each of Henry's Title I schools has made Adequate Yearly Progress over that time.

"It's clear that public school choice under NCLB really isn't an option for most of our students," said Superintendent Cox. "Giving systems the option of offering tutoring first will allow us to serve more students and directly address the issues that are affecting school performance."

Under the new plan, tutoring can be offered to all academically at-risk students in Title 1 schools, as long as economically-disadvantaged students are given first priority.

"It is our hope that this will dramatically increase the number of students receiving the tutoring services and lead to higher student achievement across the board," Cox added.