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The schools they are a-changin'
Lockamy unveils sweeping K-12 reorganization

IT'S RISKY and will undoubtedly create controversy. But the three-year K-12 organization plan presented to the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education last week is a bold move with a focus on the future, says Superintendent Thomas Lockamy.

“If we keep doing the same things we’ve always done, we’re going to get the same results,” he said at the Feb. 18 meeting.

“I realize the challenges with the economy,” Lockamy said. “I feel we can move forward with the budget we have and even with the movies we may not have.”

The plan as presented is the first draft. Lockamy said the board will discuss the plan at its March 4 meeting in an informal session, then vote on it during the formal session.

Under the plan, students and their parents will find more options, from Pre-K all the way through high school. Lockamy is confident such sweeping change might even bring private-school students back into the public system.

Why so much change so fast?

“I saw the need after three and a half years in the district to try something different,” Lockamy said. “It is my intent to provide opportunities to all students and the opportunity to stimulate change and movement, instead of getting locked into a program or track.

“We must also look at this as ‘all’ means all,” he said. “We’re losing middle and upper-income families of all races. We as a school board and administration must address that if we are going to have a high-level program.”

Most board members greeted the plan with enthusiasm, although all questioned parts of it. A few board members weren’t impressed at all, including board member Floyd Adams.

Adams expressed concern that the plan addresses the needs of middle and upper-class families and the schools they attend while ignoring inner-city schools. “The squeaky wheels, the ones who cry the hardest, are getting what they want,” he said.

At one point, Adams aimed a pointed barb at fellow board member Greg Sapp, inferring that Sapp’s time on the board and his long-term residency on Wilmington Island swayed the content of the plan.

“You’re dealing with 30 percent of the population,” Adams said. “You’re not dealing with the other 70 percent. It’s unfair that kids are coming out of elementary school reading two levels below their grade level.”

Board member Lori Brady countered that the program does address the needs of all students in the district. “I feel assured that the administration will ensure rigorous, academic courses in all the schools,” she said.

At one point, board member Susan Cox told Adams he was coming at the plan “with a negative attitude.”

“I know neighborhood schools with excellent curriculums,” Cox said. “We’ve got a lot of people in this county who invest in their children’s education and a lot who don’t. This is a great opportunity to get some back.

“Oglethorpe Academy shows that bricks and mortar don’t teach children,” she said. “Savannah High shows us the opposite. It’s a $25 million school.”

What is the organization plan and what will it do?

On the elementary level, changes include:

• The dedication of Charles Ellis as a Montessori academy;

• The opening of Godley Station as a Pre-K-Grade 8 neighborhood school;

• J.G. Smith will become a Core Knowledge/Advanced Learning school with open enrollment for grades P-3;

• Heard also will become a Core Knowledge school with open enrollment for grades 4-8;

• Marshpoint/Islands campus will begin the process to become a International Baccalaureate Primary/Middle Years Programme with open enrollment for P-8;

• Butler will remain a “microsociety” open to neighborhood children and their siblings;

• and Largo Tibet will become an IB Primary Years Programme with open enrollment.

On the middle-school level:

• Bartlett will become a neighborhood school with AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) for grades 6-12;

• for now, Coastal will have an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme with open enrollment;

• DeRenne will have Advanced Learning with open enrollment;

• Hubert, now under-utilized, will see an expansion of its Risers’ Academy and become a neighborhood school with an expanded attendance zone;

• Mercer will retain the Renzulli Program with open enrollment;

• Shuman will remain a fine/performing arts school with open enrollment;

• Oglethorpe will retain Core Knowledge;

• and Southwest will become an IB Middle Years Programme with open enrollment. Myers and West Chatham will remain as neighborhood schools.

At the high school level, Savannah High School will have Law and Criminal Justice, Liberal Studies and Mass Communications programs added.

International Baccalaureate programs will be established at Windsor Forest High School and at what is now Coastal Middle School, which eventually will become a high school.

Lockamy said the current IB program at Johnson High might eventually be moved to Coastal, but Johnson will remain an IB center for now. He said if the IB program is moved, another program would be put in place at Johnson.

Because of the diverse and far-reaching programs being added, enrollment could rise. “Had the opportunity been available (in the past), a lot of people would have given the district a chance,” Cox said.

But some board members felt the plan might have been formulated too early. “Redistricting will have an impact on this,” Brady said. “We have to keep that in mind.

“I think it’s unfair to pick and choose schools that may not be on this list,” she said. “A lot of schools already maintain rigorous academics. I think the board’s focus should be district-wide.”

Many board members expressed interest in having the Core Knowledge program in all schools. Chief Academic Officer Jacqueline Chavis pointed out that the program is expensive and must be followed exactly, but it can be done. “If the board will commit, we will do it district-wide,” she said.

Just teaching to meet state standards would mean making no gains, Lockamy said. “If you’re talking about world-class education, if you teach every child as if they are gifted, the children do much better,” he said. “I’d like to see every school have Core Knowledge.”

Lockamy pointed out that parents looking to “raise the bar” can choose the school their children will attend. “I see this as a very focused program with advanced learning happening in the schools,” he said. “We’re trying to get as many students as we can to earn an IB diploma, not a certificate.”

Operations Chief Otis Brock said a decision has not been made about the transportation of students to schools of their choice. The options range from transporting all students to requiring parents to drive them. Brock said safety and economy are the determining factors in making a final decision.

Cox noted that even if a school has a theme, that doesn’t mean all students attending have to participate in that theme. They can instead choose to simply study the basics without specializing.

Lockamy said he thinks the Marshpoint/Islands campus with pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is going to be extremely popular with parents. “That’s why we need two campuses,” he said.

Even more changes may be coming in the future, including addition of a maritime and military program at one of the high schools. An Early College program will be put in place in 2011-12 at least one of the state universities to allow high school students to earn college credit.

Board member Julie Gerbsch was generally impressed with the plan. “It takes advantage of being a city and county system,” she said. “I’m really enthusiastic about the creative thought behind this.”

But Gerbsch did raise concerns. “The overall plan takes good care of the higher-end academic students,” she said. “What we’re not seeing is anything geared toward the students on a technical career pathway.

“In Georgia, for every 10 who start high school, only six graduate,” Gerbsch said. “Only three of them go to college.”

But Gerbsch also expressed concern that the decision to keep Woodville-Tompkins High as a dedicated career and technical high school was forcing students to make important decisions too early. She said students should have options to switch to a college-bound track if they choose to.

Adams said he supports keeping Woodville-Tompkins a dedicated school, and wishes the program could be started even earlier, at the middle-school level. “We need something to keep students motivated to stay in school,” he said.

While the new organizational plan offers many academic programs, it might mean some students will have to make sacrifices. For example, the dedicated high schools won’t offer athletics.

Cox said giving up athletics is a small price to pay for students looking at the long term. “If we can pump up academics and have an advanced-learning continuum, that’s something we should have done a long time ago,” she said.

“We can stay on the traditional path and keep getting the same results, or we can follow the superintendent’s lead, which is why we hired him, and be bold and innovative,” Sapp said. “If we don’t give parents new opportunities, we’re going to keep getting the same results.”

“Much of what is needed is systemic change,” Board President Joe Buck said. “Change is always stressful.”

Buck said the plan must be looked at as a whole and said board members must consider the needs of everyone. “We all represent all our children and not just the children in our districts,” he said. “We represent the whole district.” cs