BOE hears from IGNITE CCA, Fresh Start Academy and revisits poor academic performance

Published 3:22 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) held its work session on Monday December 6, 2021, to establish the agenda for the regular meeting on Thursday, December 8, 2021. There were three special presentations made to the BOE. The first was Matt Hightower who spoke on the progress being made to finish up details on Sumter County High School. The last presentation was made by Travis Lockhart, who is the Director of Fresh Start Academy and charged with addressing students who are working diligently to achieve the goals of graduating. Travis reports all is well at Fresh Start and they have seen their first graduate from the program. Some students enrolled at Fresh Start are receiving extra attention to help the student’s behavior issues which are hindering their academic success. However, there are also students who are working in credit recovery in order to graduate.

In between those two presentations, Dr. Don Gilman reported the success which IGNITE College and Career Academy (CCA) is enjoying. As with all the school systems, they are also seeing some residual effects of COVID-19. The CCA is making a solid push to get local business owners involved in their missions. Many have long been engaged, while others are being approached with education on the unique opportunities the CCA has to offer not only the students, but the business community. The CCA is giving regular tours of the facility so the community can see with their own eyes the excellence which is taking place. Dr. Gilman welcomes anyone to join in on the tour, and Wednesdays are dedicated days to engaging those interested. The BOE was invited to take an inaugural tour as they have not completed one as a group. Some of the progress reported included the enrollment and pass/fail rate of the students. The CCA has 918 students enrolled, 697 of those students are passing the courses, 221 did not pass a class at last measurement. CCA has 54 students involved in dual enrollment, meaning they are also taking classes at SGTC or GSW. Carolyn Hamiliton began to question Gilman on several items and called the pass/fail numbers a “problem.” When presented with the poor academic performance assessments from SCS over the past months, some of which had well below 50% being on grade level in the subjects such as reading and math, she reminded the BOE that the State of Georgia was seeing poor academic numbers and it shouldn’t be alarming. However, when it came to the CCA, she voiced her opinion that the number of failed classes was indeed a problem. Gillman agreed that not passing was indeed falling short of the goal, but there have been steps taken to improve these grades and he has talked with instructors individually on some options which could bring the students to a passing grade. He stated the mission of the CCA was to “be an advocate not an adversary to the student.” He also reminded the BOE the numbers at current had the potential to change as the scoring period was not over. Gilman also reported on the partnerships with SGTC and GSW. While the enrollment was significantly down during the “COVID year” he compared the current numbers to years prior to COVID. Gilman states, “It is important to know where we have been and where we are going.” With the current number of dual enrolled students there seem to be two factors which may be impacting the enrollment. The first being COVID, as classes, especially those at SGTC, demand hands on experience and a virtual option is not effective. Secondly, the student is limited in the financial funds that can used in dual enrollment which means the students and their parents are having to very intentionally choose where to invest their time, and enrollment in classes which may be more “elective” in nature are not as feasible as once before. Going forward, Gilman and his staff will be ensuring the students, especially the new 10th and 11th graders are well aware of their options. The CCA is projecting a significant increase in dual enrollment students as the year progresses. As Gilman states, dual enrollment is “good for the students, good for the school and good for all our partners. We want to increase that.”

Gilman went on to report on the partnerships which are being procured to get the student involved in work-based learning. Gilman and his staff are nurturing relationships in the area, so employers understand there is an eager and learning workforce at the CCA. Several industries have approached the CCA wanting to participate in the program. The partners understand the student’s needs and desires as well as the student being in the process of determining if they will enjoy the career. The businesses have promised both mentors on the job site, as well as wages greater than minimum wage for the student. In such a partnership there is a beneficial effect for both the student and the employer. Gillman projects there will be 47 students involved in the work-based learning program. Hamilton continued to question Gilman on this practice, and he explained to her how work-based learning and another similar program, “Great Promise” coexist together. There are certain “at risk” criteria Great Promise requires before it can be utilized. If pressed, the students of CCA could meet the requirement, however there is the “fit” of the program to consider on behalf of the well being of the student.

CCA is both a public and privately funded entity. The CCA staff has done a phenomenal job in raising funds from the private sector to ensure the students are getting the most out of their CCA experience. Gilman reports thus far they have raised greater than $800, 000 and have made asks worth well over $1000,000. He reports the outlook is good as these donors are not only investing in CCA they are investing in the future workforce of Sumter County.

Hamilton backed Gilman up to another problem she saw in the report he prepared. She presented concern over the number of students enrolled in CCA classes. With class sizes as small as nine, if the student decided to be dually enrolled, the CCA and therefore the SCS would lose students. Gillman explained to her that all of the SGTC and GSW classes required at least one class to be passed at the CCA and in most cases two classes. The option to keep the census up for SCS was to limit the number of offerings to the student. If a student only has a limited number of options to choose from, they are less likely to dually enroll or even participate in a work program. Gillman was adamant about the impact such a decision would make on the student. As he explains, there are many more than four to five career options in Sumter County. If we pigeonhole the student into limited options, we are not doing the best service to the student or the community. The greater the likelihood a student has to find the career which matches his/her talents and strengths, the more likely s/he will experience lifelong success. In addition, with a wide variety of options, the student has a greater opportunity to remain in Sumter County and therefore make a workforce not only stronger but a greater recruiting tool for future industries. He went on further to say small classroom sizes are typical for CCAs as he has researched out this very issue with other more experienced CCAs. Ultimately Gilman and the CCA will keep the student as their top priority and the more choice they have, the more likely they are to find enriching careers.

After other agenda items where discussed, topics such as mask mandates and repurposing of the now empty schools were on the list. Jim Reid opened the floor hoping to engage in some meaningful conversation on the academic report which has been presented over the past few months. The assessments indicate significant lacks. The reading and math assessment for kindergarteners has dropped from 80% of students meeting proficient levels to 29% in this current year. For Grades 1-12, the reading assessment reports the proficiency rate has dropped from 40% to 15%. For this same age, the math assessment has dropped from 61% proficiency to 7% proficiency. “Proficiency” indicates the number of students who are performing on grade level. At the time, (October 2021) there was no discussion by the board with the exception of Carolyn Hamilton saying, “some data may look low right now, but that’s the trend across the whole state.”  The following month, all the principals went over their testing scores individually by grade and then reported some of the mitigating factors they planned to employ to correct the issue. Reid reported his understanding to be that “anywhere from 60-70% of our students were not on grade level.” He then made the analogy that if he was manufacturing a product, that would mean 60-70% of his product is defective. “We spend all this money on professional development, we buy all the software, we try to make sure we got great facilities and I just don’t understand……” Knighton then questioned which data he was referring to and Reid signified he was concerned about about the report which designated students into rankings, one of which is proficient, which indicated if the student is on grade level. Knighton remarked the data was an assessment and COVID was an issue. Knighton reports literacy is a significant issue as reading and writing is needed for anything else. He reports he addressed specific standards and concepts which “could move that needle.” Knighton reports math is also a problematic area, and he reports a curriculum has been put in place for K-6th grades. Knighton reports he has had discussions with his principals. Reid then questioned in regard to the high school how we can see 84% preforming under grade levels in reading and 90% below in math, “yet our graduation rate is 92%. How can you graduate if you’re below grade level?” Knighton responded; graduating is core subject pass rate. They can graduate “but still be deficient in some areas.” Hamilton then made the comment that the “kids don’t take that assessment seriously, because it doesn’t count for anything.” Then she pontificated upon how the “government” looks at the scores. She reports the goal is not to be identified as “the lowest performing schools.” Reid reports having had this concern for months and reports being proud of the community presenting their concerns about the poor performance, “and I want to address it.” He ultimately stated, “our goal is teaching and learning.” Barnes then made a remark about “the fella that was driving this is no longer here.” Knighton remarked, “what is so great is it is now being driven by the head” and he can now drive from the head as opposed to previously and ended with a promise there would be improvement by the end of the school year.

This meeting as well as prior meetings can be found on the Sumter County Schools Facebook page under the same name. The regular meeting of the BOE is scheduled for Thursday at 7pm and can be seen live at 100 Learning Lane or via Facebook.