As we look to 2016, many people are reflecting on the memorable events of 2015. Whether personal, local community based, or worldwide, this year concludes with a collection of amazing, motivating and even infamous events. There were several big public education stories in 2015 that captured news headlines and drew community response across Metro Atlanta. This Year-in-Review recaps just some of the most talked about public educational topics of 2015.
The January 2015 school year began cold and stormy. Talk of black ice and a winter mixed sent Metro Atlanta school leaders vowing never again would parents, students and teachers experience the winter storm chaos forever known as Snowmageddon 2014. Poor planning and a misunderstanding of weather advisories resulted in more than 1,500 students stranded overnight at schools and on buses during the 2014 Winter Storm.
In February 2015 several school system acted out of caution and safety by not running buses and keeping schools closed because of the inclement weather forecasts. Twitter and various social media sites buzzed with opinions over districts’ decisions.
Soon after Snowpocalypse 2014 the state of Georgia implemented the Governor’s Severe Winter Weather Warning and Preparedness Task Force. Recently, Atlanta Mayor Kesim Reed introduced a new mass notification system during a press conference held on December 18, 2015. Mayor Reed said the system called Notify Atlanta would have made a critical difference during the 2014 snow storm and will be a valuable tool for the future. Notify Atlanta sends texts, emails or phone calls, during a community emergency, to people who sign up with the system.
As the temperatures began to warm up, the community and world’s attention returned to the Atlanta Public School’s CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency) test cheating scandal. With final testimonies and closing arguments ready, the community was shocked by the death of former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall. APS’15th school superintendent lost her hard fought battle with stage IV breast cancer on March 2, 2015. Hall was due to stand trial in a separate case as she faced racketeering and conspiracy charges in connection with changing student’s incorrect test answers on the state exam for monetary gain.
On April 1, 2015, eleven of twelve former APS educators were found guilty, immediately handcuffed and taken to the Fulton County jail. Among the charges, it was the first time that Fulton County had tried educators under the Violation of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). There was mixed community reactions to the felony convictions and immediate jail incarceration of the educators. While people around the community agreed with the verdicts, some area leaders and ministers protested the trial and its outcome. Still others were just glad to see the trial, detailing Atlanta’s darkest educational scandal, finally come to a conclusion.
The Georgia General Assembly voted to let the voters decided on the controversial Opportunity School District (OSD) proposal during the November 2016 Election. If it passes it would allow the Governor’s office to take over nearly 140 of the state’s failing school systems, as rated by the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), and based on three consecutive years of low CCRPI ratings. Sixty of those schools are in Metro Atlanta. Supports said the plan give all students a chance for a good education. But opponents of OSD said it’s not about helping students, but about making money.
In April, Georgia students, parents and teachers experienced the new Georgia Milestones Exam and Common Core Standards. The Milestones replaced the state’s 14 year old CRCT and is in lined with Common Core Standards. It presented new testing experiences like open ended questions, and taking the test on computers. The Milestones required students to use critical thinking skills. With the nationwide debate already in place about Common Core Standards, there was the additional concern that Georgia students would not do well on this first testing effort. Parents and teachers pointed to critical issues like the fate of students taking the test for the first time and needing to pass it in order to be promoted.
In March 2015 many parents participated in the nationwide Opt Out Movement, and both supporters and opponents of Common Core made their voices heard in petitions, promotions and news reports. As Metro Atlanta school districts reviewed their Milestones test results in November 2015, this year’s Milestones test did count against students who did not do well. However, the 2016 assessment will count for all students.
DeKalb County Schools wrapped up an intensive search for its new school superintendent. But it was not before a community plea for the school board to keep former Georgia Labor Commissioner, Michael Thurmond in the position. Thurmond stepped in as interim superintendent in 2013 and was later named Superintendent. He led the District through some critical phases including directing the District’s move from probation status to one step away from full accreditation, noted in March of 2015.
On May 13, 2015, the DeKalb County School Board announced Dr. R. Stephen Green of the Kansas City School District as DeKalb’s new school superintendent. Like Thurmond, the Kansas City community did not want Green to leave either. Both men share similar accreditation successes, improvements in graduation rates and balanced district budgets.
As summer came to an end, Metro Atlanta school systems looked to big changes including the opening of new and renovated facilities in districts like Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Thanks to the eSPLOST, one-penny sales tax approved by Fulton County taxpayers, students there return to school with assigned mobile device for personalized learning. The District used both tables and laptops, and allowed students to take the devices home.
Campus safety concerns continued to be a hot topic for public schools and the community in 2015. Clayton County Public Schools was among the first metro school districts to equip its school resources officers with body cameras in 2015. Officers said the body cameras served as a useful tool for recording evidence during events happening on campus. In November, Cobb County School’s resources officers also started wearing body cameras. Other metro school districts are planning to do the same in 2016.
DeKalb County Schools was one of the only districts in the nation to have resources officers in its elementary schools. In 2015 DeKalb added a new truancy unit and an emergency response team. At total of 70 new officers were added to DeKalb schools. Body cameras for DeKalb resource officers are expected in 2016.
Road Safety improvements was another critical changes among Metro Atlanta public schools in 2015. Atlanta Public Schools kicked off its APS School Bus Stop Arm Safety Initiative. APS joined other Metro Atlanta systems with new similar measures like Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Bus Stop-Arm Enforcement Program. The efforts mean more school districts have now equipped their buses with stop-arm cameras to record school bus traffic violators and their license plates for law enforcement citations. Many Metro Atlanta parents were pleased with the addition of stop-arm cameras.
Henry County Schools implemented six new Safe Routes for students walking and biking to and from school. Metro Atlanta law enforcement reported several cases where were students were approached by strangers while walking to and from schools. The incidents caused alarm in communities, and lead to more watchful eyes among families and neighbors.
As cooling fall temperatures rolled in, Metro Atlanta driver gained the annual opportunity to fuel up their cars while pouring resources into STEM education for Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton county students. Every fall the Fuel Your School Program gains public support for education through participating Chevron and Texaco station donating a $1 for every gas purchase to the DonorChoose.org fund. Teachers made their request to DonerChoose.org and with much anticipation watched to see if their classroom needs would be met. In October, Metro Atlanta educators not only received “Brown Box” deliveries of needed math, science, engineering and technology supplies, but students received the opportunity to experience high tech, academic success.
The year end results of the 2015 Fuel Your School Program generated more than $400,000 with 211 Metro public schools receiving nearly162 STEM curriculum resources. The supplies benefited 445 local public school classroom projects, and specifically reached 49,168 students.
Metro Atlanta school districts continued to improve graduation rates, teachers across the Metro learned of pay raises for 2016 and many innovative learning programs were introduced to students.
As school districts prepare for 2016, the hope is that there will be far more good news stories to share, and positive events keeping Metro Atlanta residents talking.