2014 Intercity Visit: A Schools Perspective

I graduated from high school in Albany, GA in 1990. 

When I graduated, Clark County Schools in Athens were considered the best schools in the state of Georgia. They regularly had high test scores, placed a high percentage of kids into college and had a stellar reputation. Unbeknownst to my 17 year old self was that Clark County Schools also had a large and persistent achievement gap and some folks were beginning to ask if the schools did a good job because of what was happening in the classroom or if it was because talented students walked through the door every day.

Over the next decade or so, Clark County and Athens underwent a demographic shift. While poverty had always been an aspect of life in the community, it began to increase as the economy shifted and mills and poultry plants closed. Upwardly mobile families - mostly white - began to leave Athens for surrounding counties.

By 2009 Athens / Clark County Schools (the two entities merged governments in an effort to streamline and reduce costs) was a majority minority school district with 82% students receiving free and reduced lunch. Performance was low. Teachers and parents were demoralized. 

Superintendent Philip Lanoue was brought in from Massachusetts to help turn the schools around. ACC Schools has undergone a dramatic transformation since Dr. Lanoue arrived. It has been honored as the #1 large school district for closing the achievement gap - in some schools it has been all but eliminated. The rates of Annual Yearly Progress, graduation, and Advanced Placement participation and performance have all seem dramatic and remarkable increases.

While in Athens, I met with parents from the district and talked to them about their experiences and the changes they had seen under Dr. Lanoue's leadership. Based on those conversations, a visit to Chase Street Elementary in Athens, and a presentation and conversation with Dr. Lanoue, I noted three essential things that Dr. Lanoue did to transform Athens schools.

1. Change the environment, change the culture.

One of the first things Dr. Lanoue did was oversee $400 million in physical improvements to ACC schools. Every school was refurbished and modernized. Gardens were built and solar panels installed. New learning spaces were created using natural light. Technology infrastructure was improved. "I knew that if we were going to change the way people thought," Dr. Lanoue told me, "we would have to change the space where learning was taking place."

2. Emphasize quality instruction.

One of Dr. Lanoue's favorite phrases, parents told me, is that "you're not teaching if kids aren't learning." The district began a unique pilot program with the University of Georgia School of Education that puts tenured university professors in schools, mentoring, training and teaching teachers. The emphasis on instruction has transformed the way the district operates - putting the classroom first.

3. Expect the highest standards from all learners.

Parents said that expectations for performance are high, and they are non-negotiable. All students are expected to rise to the challenge of high performance. The key to closing the achievement gap, Dr. Lanoue said, is to acknowledge that all kids can achieve great outcomes.

The turnaround of the ACC schools was a compelling and interesting story. 

ACC schools are very different demographically from CHCCS. They are a high poverty, majority minority school district that was struggling when Dr. Lanoue arrived. He was given a degree of autonomy and authority to turn around the schools that does not exist in a lot of places because the community was desperate for change. 

In CHCCS, we have a high achieving school district that looks different than what we saw in Georgia. But there are lessons to be gleaned from Athens.

The CHCCS long range plan has put instructional excellence at the heart of what we will do going forward. The entire district will oriented around the growth mindset. In other words, it is not just about objective performance, but about constant improvement. Our professional development and compensation model will be built around this improvement of performance. By emphasizing instructional excellence, we can ensure the continued - and improved - high performance of all students and staff.

The growth mindset has the potential to help CHCCS close its decades long achievement gap. Every student is expected to make one year of growth every year, regardless of where they start. If a 4th grader is reading on a 6th grade level when they start 4th grade, then by the end of the year they will be expected to be at a 7th grade level. For kids that are behind, the expectation is that they will be expected to grow 1.5 years. High expectations for every student, just as Dr. Lanoue proscribed.

There are still challenges that remain for CHCCS. The budget woes of the last few years have left our schools in need of serious capital investment and improvement. There will need to be continued sharing of information and transparency about the changes taking place in the way we are doing business. Parents will need to remain involved and engaged in the issues. 

One of the biggest takeaways from the ICV regarding schools for me, however, had nothing to do with schools directly. It was the realization that we must work together across the county to continue to grow and develop our community in a dynamic, yet responsible way.

Our county remains funded almost exclusively by property taxes. It is unreasonable to expect that we will continue to have a diverse, eclectic and creative community if we continue that trend. We won't be able to afford it. Athens was building mixed use developments, attracting large industry (Caterpillar!) and nurturing technological startups. We are doing a lot of that in Orange County as well, but need to do more - while protecting our environment and most vulnerable citizens. It is a huge collective challenge.

But schools are inextricably tied to the community they are a part of. CHCCS and Orange County Schools are tied to the continued growth and dynamism of Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. It's all connected. That was what the trip to Athens taught me.


Jeff Hall


CHCCS PTA Council 


Thanks for starting the conversation about school funding. It's hard to understand how the facilities fell into such disrepair. The commissioners have been talking about it for years, but have not not asked the schools for a maintenance plan that shows the needs over time or how it impacts the $200 million that's already been allocated for schools,

They did ask the voters to approve a sales tax for economic development, and they've put water and sewer infrastructure in Efland. So far one project -Morinaga - should add revenue in about 5 years. More revenues will come from town development but the budgets dont include anything, There has been no conversation about if/how these new funds could help with school maintenance,

Instead, the commissioners have been meeting regularly to discuss a bond which would further delay school funding. I'm surprised there's have been no meetings to discuss progress on economic development and how that might shure up funding for school facilities.


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