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Board warned of coming crunch
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THE NEW YEAR is just beginning, but the school year already is half over for the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Superintendent Thomas Lockamy says the district has made improvements this school year, but knows serious challenges lie ahead in the face of the worsening economy.

Lockamy presented his mid-year State of the Schools report at the Jan. 7 school board meeting. Under the district’s accountability system, academic achievement has increased. ACT and SAT scores are rising, more students are taking the Advanced Placement exam and programs such as the International Baccalaureate program are encouraging students to challenge themselves and strive for excellence.

On the minus side, nine incidents involving weapons or drugs have occurred this year, two more than last year. But Lockamy sees even that as a sign that the district’s vigilance is rooting out potential problems.

“We’re in our third year of random inspections,” he said. “I think we will see an increase (in the number of drugs and weapons found on school property) until the students understand they will be caught.”

Currently, 29 percent of high school juniors and seniors in the district are enrolled in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. That number is up from just 14 percent.

Board member Susu Cox and other board members are encouraging the legislature to correct an oversight. Students take Advanced Placement classes or participate in the International Baccalaureate program because they want to challenge themselves, yet often see their grades fall as they take classes that are more difficult.

“We’re pushing students to take the advanced classes, but when they do their GPA goes down,” Cox said. “Then they don’t qualify for the Hope Scholarship.”

In seeking to prepare students for more challenging classes, the district is considering a middle school redesign. Bernadette Ball-Oliver, executive director of middle schools, updated the board on plans to provide specialty programs — formerly called magnet programs — at each middle school.

But some board members weren’t swayed. “I’ve been on this board 12 years now and we’ve talked about the middle schools before,” board member Lori Brady said. “It is the weak link, it’s always been the weak link. Unless we have a monitoring system and watch what’s going on in the implementation process, this isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Several models are being considered, and some of the schools could be charter schools. Lockamy said at some point, the entire district might be a charter district.

Currently, there are three to four charter districts in Georgia, and Lockamy said the matter would be discussed at the board’s upcoming in-town retreat. “(But) redistricting will be our biggest discussion at the retreat,” he said.

At one point, board member Floyd Adams asked why the changes needed to be made at the middle school level. “Are you saying we’re failing?” he asked Ball-Oliver.

“We’re not failing,” Ball-Oliver responded. “But we don’t need to be stagnant.”

At the board’s December meeting, the board heard a presentation about redesigning the high schools. “I instructed the superintendent last summer to be on the look-out for transforming the high school and middle school across the board,” board President Joe Buck said.

“We agreed one size did not fit all,” Buck said. “We can’t do anything about redistricting until we come to a firm decision about middle school and high school transformation.”

Cox pointed out that district finances will affect some decisions. “Discipline is always an issue we must address, and this year, funding is going to be a huge issue,” she said.

During a swearing-in ceremony for board members Brady, Irene Hines and Ruby Jones held earlier in the day, Lockamy said difficult times will be faced in coming months. “We’re going to be working difficult, challenging and long hours,” he told the board. cs