Savannah-Chatham Public Schools officials have been busy implementing radical reform plans designed to turn around academics at the district’s lowest-performing elementary and high schools — Savannah High and Brock.
Brock Elementary’s turnaround began in January. School leadership was changed and a turnaround team was brought in to engage the staff, students and community in planning changes in school culture, curriculum, staffing and instruction.
Turnaround at Savannah High began in 2016 when students were offered their choice of 12 career training and apprenticeship programs. In addition to their regular high school academic courses, students train for career certification in business, entrepreneurship, culinary arts, sports and entertainment marketing, barbering, hair and nail care, cybersecurity, game design, criminal investigations, forensic science, Army ROTC and engineering, drafting and design. The school board devoted $550,000 to convert classrooms into learning laboratories last year.
Academic and behavior problems at both inner-city schools nosedived over the last decade as the district focused on creating high-end academic specialty programs and nurturing suburban K8 schools. Their best, brightest and most supported students transferred to specialty programs or moved to suburban schools. Within a few years of this drain, both schools had the highest concentration of low-income minority students since the district was federally ordered to desegregate in the 1960s.
But the turnaround plans are designed to revitalize academics, reinvigorate staff and create academic programs that will engage students and lead to rapid gains. Next school year Brock, like Savannah High, will replace at least half of the faculty and staff and completely change school operations.
“We’ve been working on evidence-based solutions for the instruction and climate in our lowest performing schools,” said Deputy Superintendent Ann Levett.
Savannah High Career Academy
In 2014 Savannah High’s graduation rate was the lowest in the district and overall academic achievement was among the worst in the state, landing it on Georgia’s Priority School list. But the turnaround plan has transformed instruction and teacher training, and Career Academy courses are already engaging more students in their studies. In addition to taking required high school academic courses, students study a career pathway designed to make them immediately employable and prepared for dual enrollment in college courses, internships, apprenticeships and volunteer service.
Savannah High Principal Tammy Broadnax has replaced all but 24 of her faculty and staff. When she took over three years ago she has addressing issues with school culture and behavior and she implemented the Career Academy. The graduation rate rose from 56.9 in 2014 to 70.6 in 2016.
“We’re bringing in fresh ideas and new ideas,” she said. “Our students can actually see the investment the district is making at Savannah High and they’re excited.”
Savannah High School’s new career pathway labs are nearly complete, and Giniah Myles got her first real live customer after months of trimming and styling mannequin hair in the classroom — a schoolmate in need of a wash and trim.
“I’ve been learning to wash and braid hair, use clippers and give people facials,” Myles said. “It’s really not that scary, and after I graduate I think it will help me work my way through nursing school.”
Around the corner students were using computer software to draw three-dimensional building designs in the engineering lab, and students in Jacqueline Sumpter’s nail tech class were discussing nail art design and techniques for applying acrylic coating in their new cosmetology lab.
Students take entrepreneurship courses and offer services to the community as part of their coursework. Next year the public will be able to visit the Savannah High salon and barbershop during service hours for a pedicure and a haircut.
“I bite my nails, but now I’m starting to get them to grow,” said Ellexus Hicks, a ninth grade nail tech student. “This is the most fun class that I have. In middle school they didn’t have hands-on things for you to do like this. You have opportunities to get involved in learning more things at Savannah High.”
Brock is one of 12 local schools on Gov. Nathan Deal’s Chronically Under Performing list. Some 77 percent of fourth-graders scored below grade level standards on the reading portion of the state test last year, and 70 percent scored below fourth grade math standards. The turnaround plan for Brock addresses everything from retention incentives for high-performing staff and an extended day for extra instruction along with opportunities for credit recovery and support and training for teachers.
School leadership will focus on instruction and behavior. Staff will include a school improvement specialist, academic coaches and a behavior intervention team. They’re introducing a new math and reading curriculum, a science lab and family activities to engage students and their parents. Student outcomes will be assessed weekly and interventions will be in place to ensure students master their lessons. Those who struggle will receive weekly remediation and enrichment.
Because more than half of the students enter kindergarten unprepared, they’re adding PreK and Early Start classes. They’re bringing in tutors, mentors and strong instructors.
Levett said they are working to pack as much learning and nurturing into the school year as possible to help students catch up and make up for the enriching experiences they aren’t getting at home.
“We will closely monitor the data to make sure Brock maintains progress,” Levett said. “We’re not wedded to keeping people or programs or practices. We’re only holding on to what moves student achievement forward.”
The district successfully turned around Beach and Groves High schools using similar reform models. But those turnaround efforts were funded by federal grants. The Brock and Savannah High efforts will require district resources and low performing, high poverty schools have never been a school board spending priority. Even after Republican legislators began implementing accountability systems that lead to state takeover of failing schools and 12 local schools were listed as failing, the Savannah-Chatham School Board never fully funded academic reform plans or created strong financial incentives to attract top teachers to struggling schools.
Just this month when the board was asked to formally adopt a resolution for the Brock Turnaround staff has been implementing since January, two board members refused because full implementation will cost $250,000. A third board member argued that reforming the district’s worst performing school was piecemeal and questioned why turnaround was being implemented district wide.
Ten years ago that same argument prompted the board to abandon a reform plan for struggling Savannah High and focus on specialty program and suburban K8 school reform instead.