Clayton Schools' academic gallery fosters learning

For one night every few months, the halls of the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex are crowded with visitors, and dozens of students get to be academic Cinderellas for a couple of hours.

The pupils stand in front of bulletin boards that display the work they have been doing in their classrooms. Some wear costumes, but most settle for just dressing up in their Sunday best. Parents, teachers and school system administrators go from board, to board, to see the academic work. At each stop, all of the attention is focused on the students, as they explain their boards.

But, the students get something that Cinderella missed out on: Time. While the fairytale princess' time in the spotlight came to an end at the stroke of midnight, the students' ball continues for two months, while their academic work remains on display at the school system's central office. Then, the work is rotated out, as new students get to be in the spotlight.

"The real magic is parents, family members, teachers, and administrators standing to support that one, or two [children] for that one moment, which is a moment they will never forget," said Clayton County Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley.

On Thursday, school officials held their latest academic gallery opening. It has been just over a year since the school district created the gallery in January 2010. Officials say the major benefit of it is, it gives students an opportunity to show the public how much they are learning. The school work displayed is usually hands-on projects that include academic research, and sometimes, artistic ability.

At one point during Thursday's gallery opening, a trio of Thurgood Marshall Elementary School students pushed tough negotiations with Heatley, over how much of a price discount they were willing to give him for a fictional floor tile company they sold as part of a math project featured in their gallery board.

"Zero percent," one of the students exclaimed.

"Zero?!? See, Better Business Bureau," Heatley said in response.

"We are the best in the country," another youth chimed in.

"I should get at least 50 percent," the superintendent claimed.

"Fine, 55 percent," said the third student in an authoritative voice.

"Deal. Deal. Deal," said Heatley.

School System Chief Academic Officer Diana Carry said the gallery has brought the subject of academic rigor into conversations between many students and their teachers. It was Carry who introduced the concept to the school system.

"You start to walk around, and the kids are talking about rigor," Carry said. "They're challenging the teachers to ensure that there is rigor, so we've got a nice relationship going, of a dialogue about pushing it [academic rigor] up to another level of excellence, and standards."

Heatley said it is still too early to see what impact the gallery is having on student benchmark assessment test scores, though. "I can't tell you that this is going to equate to higher benchmarks, because it's not every child," he said. "But, what it does do is re-focus kids and teachers and parents, on the educational process."

Still, as parents and students whizzed past him at this week's gallery opening, the superintendent said there are benefits for the students in having a place to show off their school work.

"I think it's multi-faceted," Heatley said. "Students get to display their work. Look around at the faces of the young people. They're standing there, they're dressed for success. They speak fairly eloquently, and you take something that is done in class, and you bring it to the forefront."

Some of the students, whose work was featured in this week's gallery, however, said the effort has helped them gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they are learning about in the classroom.

"It's given me another opportunity to use my critical-thinking skills," said Riverdale High School freshman, Raven Ray, 15. She did a project on whether food cooks more evenly in a microwave, if it is on a rotating tray. She said she found that it did cook more evenly, if rotates, rather than if it remains stationary.

"I had to use a lot of critical-thinking skills, and I had to do a lot of research, in order to answer that question adequately," Ray added.

Another Riverdale High School freshman, Chiagoziem Obi, 15, said she has learned how to present what she is learning to a public audience. She also said it is helping her understand how workers do their jobs. Obi's project was on whether a "criss-cross" bridge support design can hold more weight than a vertical-support design. She said her research showed the "criss-cross" design did, in fact, hold more weight.

"It helps my understanding, because I get to know how professionals in the field do it," Obi said. She added that it also taught her about "the planning and the process that it takes to accomplish a goal."