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Secretary of Education: Future Clayton Schools visitor?

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County Public Schools may be in line for a visit from the nation's top education official, a representative of the U.S. Department of Education said on Monday.

U.S. Department of Education Senior Policy Analyst Dennis Bega visited three Clayton County schools, met with nine teachers and administrators, and heard presentations from student docents in the district's Academic Gallery.

Bega said he makes such visits to school systems to see if it would be "fruitful" for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to visit them in the future. He later said the trips are to check out districts, such as Clayton County Public Schools, which invited Duncan to visit.

As he was completing his visit, Bega said he was pleased with his experience in the school system, and was hopeful that a Duncan visit to the district might be somewhere in the future.

"Whenever he is in a city, making a major presentation, he tries to visit a school in a nearby school system," Bega said. "It is my hope that, if he's ever making a presentation somewhere in the Southeast, he'll make time to visit schools from Clayton County."

Although a visit from Duncan is not definite, Clayton's Chief Academic Officer Diana Carry said she hopes he will come in the fall. She said she believes the district's chances of enticing the education secretary to drop by look good, following Bega's visit.

"It went really well," Carry said. "We do want to be a national model for best practices that can be used to improve other school systems."

Carry said Bega's visit is the result of campaigning she, and several students, have launched to get Duncan to the district. She has made a call to Duncan's office. The district also had 15 high school students write letters, asking Duncan to visit them.

The school system wants to promote some of its best practices, to show the district has moved beyond the stigma it received a year and a half ago, when it became the first U.S. school system in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation, Carry said.

The district regained its accreditation -- on a two-year probationary basis -- from its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a year ago.

One of the "best practices" being pushed by the school system is the district-wide, and school-level Academic Galleries, Carry said. The galleries, which are changed out every few weeks, display student work, which show compliance with specific Georgia Performance Standards.

Carry also said the school system wants to highlight its professional development programs for teachers and administrators. A new initiative the school system will roll out this summer is three professional-development camps for school-level educators. Those camps would deal with writing, science and social studies, and hands-on learning, she said.

Now that Bega has visited on Duncan's behalf, Carry said, the next step will be for her to call Bega next week to schedule a time for a U.S. Department of Education's videographer to come to the district, and videotape some of its practices in action. The chief academic officer said she will likely schedule the videographer's visit for August.

When, or if, Duncan visits will depend on how the videographer's visit goes, Carry said.

"Arne Duncan only visits districts which are doing something unique that can be used to help other schools," Carry said.

During Bega's trip, he visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School, Sequoyah Middle School and Charles R. Drew High School, where culinary-arts students prepared lunch for him. He then met with a small group of employees, including teachers and school-level administrators at the district's central office. During the meeting, the employees pointed to the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, and the district's professional learning programs, as highlights within the school system.

Riverdale High School's Assistant Principal Candice Jester said the district's recent accreditation problem has been a good thing, because it has re-invigorated veteran employees to find ways to change the district for the better.

"Sometimes, it takes a fall to realize where you were at before," Jester said. "The more we put into our school system, the more we put into improving student performances, then we will see a change."

Bega then went on a tour at the district's Academic Gallery, at the central office. During the tour, 11 students acted as docents, explaining displayed student class work, and the Georgia Performance Standard demonstrated by the work.

One of the docents, Morrow High School freshman Hoang Nguyen, 15, said meeting someone who works on national education policy was a surreal experience. "When you're in school, you don't think you're ever going to meet someone like that," she said. "You just think you're an ordinary student."