Last week's winter storm postponed the news conference Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis had scheduled to discuss his initial assessment and recommendations after analyzing the system during his first 120 days on the job.
Early reaction to his plan has been favorable, so Lewis didn't face another storm Friday when he answered questions from the media. But this did give him a chance to clarify some points.
The most popular initiative he has proposed, Lewis said, is to divide the district into three regions -- west, central and east - and assign a chief administrator and other staff to each region. He says this organizational structure will serve schools better and help combat the racial and economic separation between north and south Columbus.
When asked which of his proposals has generated the most criticism, Lewis didn't mention one in particular. But the his proposal to change high school scheduling has prompted residents to contact the Ledger-Enquirer to share their concern. Lewis wants to switch the eight-period 4x4 block or A-B-day schedule to a seven-period schedule with more yearlong classes. This would allow schools to add a period called Increased Learning Time for students to receive remediation or enrichment during the school day instead of after school. It also would allow for more common planning time among teachers and allow the district to reduce the high school staff by as much as 15 percent to save $4 million-$4.5 million through reassignments and attrition but without layoffs, Lewis has said.
Here are highlights from Lewis' Q&A with the media, edited for brevity and clarity:
How soon do you want to implement your plan to divide the district into regions and how will you get the public involved in your plan?
"Well, this is the first stage of that. Along with meeting with the CEOs, (MCSD communications director) Valerie (Fuller) and I are in the process of trying to find sites and dates. This is still in draft form, because we're talking about shifting resources, repurposing people to work on regions. All of this is going to take time, and of course it's all contingent upon board approval, but my intention is to get this in place in time for next school year, in other words July 1. That's that deliberate urgency (laughs)."
Is that on the top of your list right now?
" There are lots of things that are demanding urgency, but that's certainly a centerpiece because I think schools need that additional support. Right now, so much goes through the district office. If there are some other people that are closer that are within a few miles or a phone call, then they can have more responsive feedback and support."
Would that be creating more positions, or would the staff the district already has be distributed differently?
"It's a combination of both. In some respects it's taking the people we already have now and just deploying into specific regions. The chiefs, obviously, that's a new position, and that's going to come through retirements or through some other funding source. We've got to wait and see how things work out in the legislative session. But my intention is those new positions would be funded through repurposing of current staff, retirements, attrition, whatever it might be. (The chiefs) are going to have quite a bit of authority and responsibility and accountability. They will be answering directly to me, through me, to make sure they are moving those schools forward. The more we can build trust and confidence within our system and those regions, the more we can move our schools forward at a more rapid pace."
When did you realize there really was a north-south divide?
"Third day. My first visit in a school. By the way, this is not uncharacteristic. In my former district (Polk County, Fla.) it was east vs. west. The only question is do you have the bold courage to go ahead and name it what it is and address it."
You talked about the need to close some schools. Do you anticipate doing that by the end of this year?
"There's probably the financial need, but I can't spasm the system with all of the different changes. You have to make methodical change over time. We're still identifying where our feeder patterns are within this configuration, looking at where we can expand early-childhood education. You've got to look at what's going to save us cost in terms of transportation. I don't anticipate closing any schools immediately, but clearly we're going to have to do that going forward. I can tell you that, more than likely, any closings or consolidations will take place a year from last month, so we give people a good, solid six months to know there will be some changes made -- earlier if we know that, as soon as we know, but I've got to make sure I'm making an informed decision based on all the factors, and we're still identifying some of those factors."
How many schools are under capacity?
" It's probably about close to half are under the full capacity. Part of the problem is we built schools anticipating the BRAC (the Base Realignment and Closure that was supposed to bring more people to Fort Benning than it did). We have plenty of student stations, in other words seats; they're just not in the right place right now. They will be in time, through consolidation and closings and then the buildings we build. All the growth in the district is happening in the northeast. We're working in concert with the city in talking about projections. We're talking to developers and Realtors to make sure we're making informed decisions. We have to look at where we can be most fiscally responsible for the taxpayers and yet still provide a quality education in a quality building."
Your goal is to get students to graduate high school within four years, are there going to be any new resources or different learning models that they'll see to accomplish that goal?
" Assuring that we're going to have students proficient by the end of third grade in literacy and math. One of the things that I'm proposing is to look at regrouping our struggling students in kindergarten and (grades) 1, 2 and 3, and then based on data assign the best teacher within that school and pay them more money, because they're going to have to work with a more challenging population, kids who have a greater need. Right now, we retain a child for an entire year. It becomes almost a sentence. I don't think that's necessary. If a child can demonstrate mastery at the level we expect in the sixth week, the eighth week, 12th week, promote them right then. Don't wait for the whole year. But they stay with that teacher, who continues to introduce the next year's content all along, in addition to the remediation of the previous grade, so the student and teacher have that relationship and the teacher can continue to nurture them and scaffold that support all the way through to the next test cycle.
"Then going back to high school and middle school, there are a lot of things our schools are already doing well. Looking at those best practices, for example, advisory periods, to allow students to be known, valid and inspired, but also the graduation coaches. Some schools have them, some don't. I think we need to look within these regions. We know who those students are coming out of elementary schools. Let's start right then, having these graduation coaches get to meet with them and shepherd them through middle school into high school. Those are just some of the things we're looking at."
Would your proposed high school period called Increased Learning Time be a state-approved course?
"It's not going to be a course, per se, although it could receive credit if the students were in the right minutes per period to accrue the credit, so it could be an elective credit."
Isn't there a state-mandated amount of time for instruction, and would ILT qualify?
"Yes, and it will qualify if the principal -- and the principal has the authority to determine it -- wants to use it for elective credit. My only two parameters were common planning time for teachers and ILT. I've identified this as a cost-saving measure, so now I'm just trying to make it work in the best interest of all the students and teachers going forward."
Which districts have implemented this ILT, and is there any evidence of it working and moving the needle on academic achievement?
"It's a model that I had developed to implement back when I was a principal, but then I was promoted to the district level and never got a chance to implement it. But another school in Florida (West Port High in Ocala, Fla.) did implement it and has had tremendous success. They've improved their graduation rate by, I think, eight to nine points over the last five or six years that it's been in place, and they report that the students are handling it very maturely. They are getting extra help, and there's not as much cost in remediation."
What would you say to critics who contend that ILT would just be a glorified study hall or extension of homeroom?
"Well, if it is used properly it is not. It is a new concept. It'll take time to get in place. I certainly don't expect it to be perfect Day One."