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Atlanta schools work to help kids left behind

Tuesday - 4/23/2013, 10:28am  ET

In this Thursday, April 18, 2013 photo, Burgess-Peterson Elementary School first grader Jacqueline Wright, left, works through a lesson with instructor Kamean Daniels as part of Atlanta Public School's after-school remediation program in Atlanta. Anxiety is high among students and teachers with state standardized tests set to begin Tuesday. A lot of focus and criticism has been aimed at the tests, known as CRCT in Georgia, since one of the nation's largest cheating scandals erupted within the Atlanta Public Schools system a few years back that included allegations that teachers and principals changed scores to inflate performance. While criminal charges are pending against 35 former Atlanta educators, the district has been working on a system-wide remediation program aimed at helping those directly affected by the cheating scandal and others who have simply fallen behind. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- Long after the school day ends, nearly half the students enrolled at Burgess-Peterson Academy in Atlanta spend an extra four hours in class looking to hone their math and reading skills by using such items as a deck of cards for subtraction problems and staplers and crayons to practice taking measurements.

While this Atlanta public school wasn't ensnared in a massive cheating scandal that led to criminal charges against the district's former superintendent and 34 other educators, it's a sign of the intensive work being done across the district to remediate children affected by allegations of forged test scores as well as those who have simply fallen behind.

"It is clear that students were deprived of services that they should have received if their test scores had been adequately and appropriately recorded," Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis said in a recent interview. "We certainly have a larger than average percentage of people not performing at the appropriate levels, and those are the students we are trying to get into our remediation programs and those for which we are designing programs on an ongoing basis."

With state standardized tests beginning in Atlanta on Tuesday, teachers are anxious to find out how their students are progressing. One recently told Burgess-Peterson Principal Robin Robbins he feared three of his students may not pass. She reassured him, telling him to focus on how much progress they had already made in his class.

"The wider the gap, the harder it is," Robbins said. "So that's why we really spend a lot of time working with students early on. Kindergarten, first grade, if you see the gaps, then you need to attack them then. If not, they are going to grow larger and larger and before you know it the graduation rate is the way that it is."

The stakes became clear when Justina Collins told reporters the day the indictments were announced that school administrators years earlier had brushed off concerns that her daughter was struggling despite good test scores. Her daughter is now in the ninth grade but reading at a fifth-grade level after not getting the extra help she needed.

"I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates," Collins said last month. "It's been hard trying to help her catch up."

At Burgess-Peterson, specialized teachers are brought in to drill students on math and reading concepts, with students moving to different classrooms to provide a physical break from the regular school day.

On a recent Friday, second-graders were moving among "rotation stations" using flash cards, a deck of cards and dice to work out math problems involving subtraction. Upstairs, third-graders were broken into small groups with a few working math problems on a bank of computers along the classroom wall and others in two groups working closely with a teacher and a teacher's aide. Meanwhile, three girls sat on the floor practicing their measurements using a stapler, crayon and sticky note.

During a classroom visit, Principal Robbins crouched down on the floor and asked the girls, "Y'all love math, don't you?"

While two girls cheered "Yes!" and clapped, the third smiled shyly and said, "I'm getting better at it."

Later, Robbins said the classroom was emblematic of instructional learning focused on targeted needs.

"We don't do a lot of skill and drill," Robbins said. "We try to engage the students."

The costs of the remediation program have been estimated at $4 million for a district with just over 51,000 students and an operating budget of $574 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

"It's driven by instructional programs, not just after-school care for students. It's not just homework help," said district spokesman Stephen Alford.

The remediation efforts are just one step the school system, which includes 93 traditional and 13 charter schools, has taken in the wake of the cheating scandal. Besides removing some 180 educators accused of cheating and installing 60 new principals, the district launched mandatory, annual ethics training. Under the policy, every employee has to take an online course and pass a written test covering everything from falsifying an expense report to changing students' answers on a test. Employees who do not receive 100 percent on the test have to repeat the course until they do.

The training was initially implemented by former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who is among those facing charges, though Davis added the test and made it mandatory for all employees, Alford said.

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