The past month's debate about whether the Muscogee County School District has enough relevant textbooks for its students isn't even a relevant question for educators such as Sherah Cash.
"This is my sixth year teaching," she said, "and I've never used the textbook."
The state's goal, as expressed in the Digital Classroom Act of 2015 (Georgia Senate Bill 89), is to have, by July 1, 2020, all instructional content purchased by local school boards to be in an electronic format and all local school systems to provide a wireless computer device to each of their students as the principal source of reading or accessing instructional content.
The district's proposed fiscal year 2016 budget has $2.9 million targeted for textbooks, which number approximately 266,000 in the district's inventory. The enrollment as of October was 31,127 students. "Typically," Valerie Fuller, the district's communications director told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Friday, "the state review of textbooks adoptions renew every six years."
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Columbus voters in March approved the referendum to renew the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to collect $192,185,000 for capital projects or until the 1 percent tax, which returns July 1, expires in five years. Part of that money, $34 million, is designed to upgrade the district's technology and meet that 2020 digital deadline.
But teachers such as Cash aren't waiting. A visit to her fifth-grade classroom at Key Elementary School indicates that transition already can be done successfully -- and she has the test scores to prove it.
Cash teaches science, reading and English language arts. One morning last week, her 29 students worked individually or in small groups at centers set up around the room. Nary a textbook was seen open, but she has a class set available. The only time a parent requested a textbook, Cash said, the student needed the mother to read it to her."That's exposure," Cash said, "but you really can't ask a student to read on a level they're not capable of, because that causes frustration, and they just shut down."
At the iPod center, students used one of six devices from the school's mobile cart to quiz themselves via approved apps, such as BrainPOP. Fifth-grader Arlo Martin chose a bingo word game to work on his vocabulary.
"We don't use textbooks because they're boring," he said. "We don't learn from them. We learn more from videogames because we play videogames more these days."
Cash also has four laptops in her classroom for the students to use at one of the centers. She uses a laptop connected to the Smart Board, a computerized upgrade of a whiteboard or a blackboard.
On one of the laptops, fifth-grader Jermaine Graham logged onto the BrainPOP website to watch a video about bacteria.
"Bacteria can spread," he said. "When you touch somebody, they can become sick and get your illness."
Jermaine is more interested in science when he learns this way, he said, instead of reading a textbook.
"They show you more detail in the video," he said.
Students have passwords to access BrainPOP on computers at home or in the library.
At the Hot Dots center, students use electronic pens that indicate whether they chose the correct answer on corresponding cards. When they get one right, they earn a piece for a board game. Fifth-grader Taletria Hartin tested herself in science. One of the questions asked:
"Which of the following objects can have magnetic properties?" The choices were: A. wood chip; B. paper clip; C. plastic cup; D. paper cup.
"I'm going to choose B because it's metal," Taletria said. She touched the electronic pen to B, and the green light at the end turned on.
"I got the right answer," she said with a smile.
Taletria likes the immediate feedback.
"It helps you learn more," she said. "It's more fun."
Even without electronics, Cash finds innovative ways to motivate her students without textbooks. She created task kits on cards that allow the students to self-check their knowledge.
"You have to use these things to keep the children engaged," she said. "I feel like that is so important. If you have them engaged and have those relationships, then you've got them. They can learn anything."
Only "three or four" of her students read at a fifth-grade level, Cash said, but on the state's 2014 standardized tests, the most recent results available, 100 percent of her students passed the fifth-grade reading exam, 91 percent passed in science and 87 percent passed in English language arts -- and 20 percent of her students last year were in special education, she said.
"Textbooks are not going to change much; kids change," she said. "If you're going to prepare children for their future, then I need to do things that are going to help them find a job."
Despite 100 percent of his school's students being eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Key principal Eddie Lindsey estimates 60 percent of them have Internet access at home, and many others use computers at the South Columbus Public Library. Key has two computer labs with a combined 62 desktops, he said, where each class visits at least once a week. Key also has a mobile cart with 30 laptops, he said, which teachers check out depending on their lesson.
Cash also sees this textbook issue as a parent. She has two children, one at Northside High School and one at Veterans Memorial Middle School. "All their homework is done on iPads," she said. "I mean, you rarely see them with pen and paper."
But the transition from textbooks to computers isn't going smoothly everywhere in the school district.
Frank Myers, the District 8 representative on the Muscogee County School Board, said during the April 20 meeting that parents have complained about their children not having access to textbooks. Superintendent David Lewis replied, "To our best knowledge, the students, if they have the need for a textbook, they have one available to them to take home." The superintendent welcomed residents to contact him with specific cases to the contrary.
Subsequent emails among board members included a link to posts from residents on the Facebook page of Nathan Smith, a frequent critic of the board. Those emails and posts alleged textbook shortages at seven schools: Allen, Carver, Fort, Jordan, Hardaway, Shaw and Waddell.
The MCSD administration then surveyed its principals and found only two of the district's 53 elementary, middle and high schools mentioned a textbook shortage, and both had these explanations:
At Allen Elementary School, principal Karen Garner reported that the two third-grade teachers said they didn't request social studies books because the Reading Wonders program "does such a good job" of integrating social studies with the reading curriculum and the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards.
At Waddell Elementary School, principal Shiann Williamson reported that students lost six Reading Wonders books. "The school will incur the costs of replacing the lost books," the report says. "These books are available in the MCSD warehouse and are able for immediate delivery."
MCSD chief academic officer Ronie Collins also reported on the investigation of two complaints from parents Lewis received in emails:
At Jordan High School, "that student has access to textbooks," the report says.
At Hardaway High School, "the parent has met with his child's teachers and was afforded the opportunity for all questions/concerns to be addressed," the report says.
In a May 8 email obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act, Myers threatened to embarrass Lewis if he wasn't satisfied with the superintendent's update on the textbook controversy, scheduled for the May 11 work session:
"If you try to deny, explain away, or minimize the chronic problems with textbooks in the Muscogee County School System, I intend to public (sic) embarrass you in unprecedented fashion.
"On the other hand, if you will step up, acknowledge the problem, and begin the process of offering solutions, I will back you up and praise you."
During the May 11 work session, Nadine Moore, who homeschooled her child for two years, told the board, "If you don't send books home and you don't send the course outline home, then it does not start with the parent. It starts and stops with the teacher."
Collins explained, "The problem we run into is that our children have changed, and our books may not have changed to meet those needs. So we have to look at the whole picture, to the point that the Georgia Department of Education changed the definition of a textbook in 2012."
Now, the state defines a textbook as "systematically designed material in any medium necessary to support such material that constitutes the principal course of study for state-funded courses."
Collins noted the irony of how the complaints about textbooks have changed.
"When I was in school, you had a textbook for each subject," she said. "We got some criticism from parents about children lugging textbooks back and forth. And then we had physicians saying we were causing scoliosis in our children."
Collins told this story to further illustrate the textbook evolution:
"Last year, I had a parent that called. They were very concerned at the high school. They said, 'I want all of the textbooks. My child is not learning everything.' We had a great conversation. I said, 'Yes, ma'am. I promise we could get you that. It's not any problem, and we could work through that together.' So we did that, and the principal and the teacher were readily happy to make that work.
"Well, second semester, I got a call back from this parent, and she said, 'I just need to tell you: You were very, very nice. I'm sending all the textbooks back to school. My child hasn't touched one of them. He's still using the Internet. He's still bringing home his syllabus with his coursework, and he didn't need all those textbooks.'"
Jordan Vocational High School principal Alton White understands that shift in thinking as an educator and a parent. He has a son who was a senior this year at Jordan. He recalled fussing at him one night for not doing his homework.
"He had his iPhone out, and it was going 800 miles an hour," White said. "He said, 'I'm doing my homework.' I said, 'No, you're not. You're texting.' He turned his phone around and he was on his economics teacher's website, reviewing the notes that he had in class that day."
On the school level, White has seen the positive impact of his faculty changing with the times. In four years as Jordan's leader, the school has gone from among the lowest-performers in the state to reaching the top 24 percent of high schools. The difference, he figures, is not how hard his teachers are working but how smart they are working.
"We started looking at what we were teaching, and we found out that we weren't teaching the Georgia standards," he said. "We were teaching straight from the textbooks. Teachers would get the textbooks and start in Chapter 1 and go to Chapter 15, however many chapters there were. The problem was, those textbooks don't cover the standards. Most textbook companies print textbooks for schools in Texas, Florida or California, because that's where all the students are. Then they'll put a little stamp on the outside that says, 'This is Georgia standards," because they may have changed a paragraph on Page 75. But to be honest with you, it does not address the Georgia standards."
For example, White said, the 2015-16 school year will be the ninth straight year the state has changed the high school math standards. So the textbooks were put in storage, except for one set in each classroom, and the teachers used other sources, he said, such as online content, teacher-created materials and even some student-created materials. Teachers swap lessons plans, tests and instructional ideas on a shared computer drive and during common planning time, White said.
"We've got to focus on teaching them how to apply that information," he said, "and that application is not in the textbook."
Vanessa Ellis, a social studies teacher at Fort Middle School, has her students create their own interactive textbook in notebooks.
"I'll give them notes or we'll watch videos," she said. "Then on the following page will be output, and they'll have to show in some form or fashion what they've learned, that processing, that higher-level thinking. At the end of the year, everything is there. I don't have to say, 'Remember what we learned about the Ottoman Empire?' And everybody's scratching their head. I can say, 'Turn to Page 5 (in your notebooks).' And they say, 'Oh, yeah,' because they did something with that and it sticks more."
Ellis also teaches through songs and raps. A teacher at Kendrick High School texted her that one of her former students still was rapping about a government lesson she learned from Ellis several years ago.
"I'm just the facilitator," she said. "They're taking on ownership of their learning."
Lewis put it this way: "We are the immigrants in the children's world now. They live in 15-second worlds, with all their phones and all that. That's why we've been piloting bring-your-own-device, but we still need to have classroom sets of books for those students who might need them. We're going to continue to provide them, but it's got to be based on the standards and on the curriculum for which the students need to be prepared."
All of which doesn't help parents understand this instructional transition, however, if they don't know how and why it is happening. Collins acknowledged the district must do a better job of communicating that message. Former teacher Kia Chambers, the nine-member school board's lone county-wide representative, added that the district also must improve Internet access for students and how it instructs its instructors.
"We need to understand that our teachers come from different eras too," she said, "so in order for us all to move into the 21st century, professional development is going to be key."
Asked last week how many complaints the district has received this year about access to textbooks, Fuller, the MCSD communications director, replied in an email, "I do not know of a complaint list about textbooks. If there are any concerns about textbooks, parents, teachers, administrators work together to address inquiries to be sure resources including any applicable textbooks and/or the other appropriate resource are available for students. MCSD classrooms have class sets of textbooks. However, since a single textbook cannot cover all the standards teachers utilize a variety of teaching resources to cover all standards."
That's not good enough for Richard Rogers, who has three children attending Muscogee schools. He is most concerned about the resources for his daughter at Hardaway High School, where he says math and science are the major problem.
In math, Rogers said his daughter's teacher said the textbook didn't correspond to the analytical geometry state standards for the first half of the curriculum, then the class used a workbook during the second half.
In science, Rogers said again a textbook wasn't available to help his daughter, and he couldn't decipher her notes when he tried to help.
"Parents need to ask their teacher if the textbook is relevant to the course material," he said, "and the answer is a resounding no."
Rogers, however, conceded the source of the problem is beyond the district.
"It's not the superintendent's fault; it's the state's," he said. "They keep changing the standards and the curriculum, and there's no way any school district can keep up with the textbooks to match that."
The Georgia Performance Standards started being implemented in 2004-05, replacing the Quality Core Curriculum. In 2010, the state board adopted the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards for English and math. Those new standards started being implemented in 2012-13.
Thursday, Myers said he still isn't satisfied with the administration's response after the May 11 presentation.
"I think they took a lot of time carefully avoiding the issue," he said. " When a textbook is the primary teaching tool, and I still think that's the case more often than not in Muscogee County schools, every student ought to have full access at school and at home, and this has not been the case, and that presentation tried to dance around the issue."
Myers linked the textbook issue to what he sees as a lack of urgency to address the needs of the 10 MCSD schools on the state's failing list. They are Baker Middle School and nine elementary schools: Davis, Dawson, Forrest Road, Fox, Georgetown, Lonnie Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Rigdon Road and South Columbus.
"It's analogous to seeing no plan to fix these perpetually failing schools," he said. "It's about acknowledgment and priority."
The Ledger-Enquirer emailed Myers' comments to Lewis and Fuller but didn't receive a response by deadline. Lewis, however, did reply to Myers during the May 11 work session when he made a similar assertion.
"We have been looking at the schools, using three-year trend data," Lewis said. "And, by the way, these are schools that have been in this situation for a long time, long before I got here, and I can tell you we are focusing on that. It's all about the people in the building and providing them professional development, getting our communities involved. We met three times with somebody who is going to develop a community in schools plan as part of a comprehensive plan, not a triage system, but a true comprehensive plan, and that will be shared with the board. It will be tailored for each individual school. One size does not fit all. Every school has its own unique DNA. I know what it takes to move schools, and so do the people here. We saw a good example of that. It will be done. I can assure you."
IF YOU HAVE A CONCERN
Parents, guardians or students who have a concern about instructional resources, such as textbooks or online access, should first contact the teacher or school-based administrator, said Valerie Fuller, the Muscogee County School District's communications director. If they have additional concerns, they can call the MCSD Division of Teaching and Learning at 706-748-2109.