ALBANY, GA (WALB) - When you go to the polls, you'll vote "yes" or "no" on a constitutional amendment that could bring about the most radical education reform in recent Georgia history.
It would create an Opportunity School District run by the state that could take control of chronically failing schools away from local systems.
Four of those schools are in Albany, including Alice Coachman Elementary.
Maggie Phipps is a brand new teacher there. "I love it," she said of her new career choice.
After helping her students work on their reading skills by acting out a play, she praised their effort.
"They're eager. They want to learn. We just have to give them some skills, so they can move, so they can make some progress," Phipps said.
Alice Coachman is trying to help students make progress in some unusual ways, like using rules of the new charter system to hire Phipps.
Her previous work experience wasn't in a classroom but in non-profit and college administration.
Principal Melissa Brubaker said, "Through that system we have flexibility to hire non-traditional teachers."
The school also focuses systematically every day in every class on literacy, works to build students' foundational math skills and tracks the progress of individual students.
"So we are using that data we collect to make sure that we are helping a student where they need the most help," Brubaker said.
It's all an effort to get Alice Coachman Elementary off the Opportunity School District list.
Brubaker said, "We are putting some things in place to make some more significant gains."
Schools that score 60 or below for three straight years on Georgia's College and Career Readiness Index could be taken over by the state if the OSD amendment passes.
Those schools are considered chronically failing, but that's not a term Brubaker likes.
"This is not a failing school. You've seen many smiling faces today, bright students who really love learning," she said.
That CCRPI score is based mainly on Georgia Milestones standardized test scores and reading and math levels of students.
According to Brubaker, Alice Coachman's scores are inherently low because so many of the school's students are behind when they first step into the building.
"The majority of our students come from homes with poverty and pervasive poverty. They don't necessarily come ready to begin school," she said.
State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims doesn't think that's an excuse. "It's not impossible to get done what needs to be done for these children," she said.
Sims spent 30 years as a middle school teacher and principal. Now, she's one of the few Democrats supporting the OSD amendment.
"68,000 children in failing schools matters so much more to me than a party," Sims said.
Sims believes businesses don't want to locate in areas with failing schools, and she doesn't think those schools aren't preparing students for life after school.
"This referendum will be used as an intervention tool to bring added resources to help personnel that's located in that school," she said.
Critics claim putting local tax dollars and local control in the hands of an appointed superintendent in Atlanta is just wrong.
Sims says there's no perfect solution, but she believes the Opportunity School District plan is the best solution to an education crisis and is the best way to improve struggling schools.
"They need help. They need assistance. That's all we're doing is providing them with added assistance. That's it," she said.
This year at Alice Coachman, students have more extra-curricular activities to keep them engaged in school.
"I like stepping," said fourth grader Tyler Polk.
He's on the step team and the leadership team, but he's most excited about his science class. "I hope to be a scientist when I grow up," he said.
And it's that kind of goal that Maggie Phipps wants to help her young students reach.
Phipps said, "It's up to me, and it's up to people like me to be more involved, to take an active role in change."
She hopes that change includes getting Alice Coachman off the failing schools list.
The other Dougherty County schools on the Opportunity School District list are Morningside Elementary, Northside Elementary and Southside Middle. Others in our region are Calhoun County Elementary, Cox Elementary in Colquitt County, Randolph Clay Middle School in Randolph County, and Sarah Cobb Elementary in Sumter County.
Amendment One would authorize the Opportunity School District to take on up to 20 schools per year with no more than 100 schools under its supervision at any one time.
Schools would remain in the district for at least 5 years, unless they first score more than 60 on that index for three straight years.
The OSD has several options with these schools:
- Contract with local districts, requiring them to take specific improvement actions
- Take direct control over the schools
- Make them state charter schools
- Or shut down the schools
Below are stories of local officials taking a stand: