Improved graduation rate. Improved college entrance exam scores. Improved results on the state’s standardized tests. Improved instructional materials. Improved financial condition.
Those are among the highlights of superintendent David Lewis’ first three years leading the Muscogee County School District, according to a report compiled by his administration and entitled “The Plan ... The Progress,” which it describes as “a snapshot of the district’s strategic plan and significant progress over the last three years.”
Lewis says the report shows “we’re making strides to get better.”
“We have a problem,” he said. “There’s a plan (to fix it), we’re following it, and these are the reasons we think it’s working.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Ledger-Enquirer
The report shows improvements the district has made during Lewis’ tenure. In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, he praised the district’s employees for accepting the “substantive change we’ve been making. They’re embracing it now. I won’t say everybody’s always happy about it, but rarely when change comes in do you see people always happy.”
He said his 10-year plan, which has seven years remaining, is nothing without execution.
“Whatever progress we are making on the plan is ultimately due to the hard work of our students, teachers, administrators and support staff throughout the district,” he said.
The board hired Lewis in July 2013 from Polk County, Fla., where he was an associate superintendent. Lewis replaced John Phillips, the former superintendent who filled in for one year as the interim superintendent after Susan Andrews retired.
Lewis has presented the report to community leaders gathered by the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation. He said he will have it emailed to all district employees, parents and guardians.
“It’s simply to share with people what the progress has been to this point and to hopefully help our faculty, staff and employees, as well as the community as a whole, feel good about where we are but also where we’re headed,” Lewis said.
Here are highlights of statistics in the superintendent’s report:
MCSD’s passing rate on the 2016 Georgia Milestones Assessment System improved in 22 of the 31 categories measured in 2015. Muscogee outperformed the districts in Georgia’s other second-tier cities — which includes Bibb County (Macon), Chatham County (Savannah) and Richmond County (Augusta) — on 26 of the 32 assessed areas in 2016.
The College and Career Ready Performance Index, which combines all the Georgia Milestones results into one score along with other measurements, is how the state summarizes the effectiveness of each school and district.
The state considers a failing CCRPI score to be less than 60 out of 100 points. MCSD had 23 schools with a CCRPI less than 60 in 2012; it has 16 as of 2015. Also in 2015, the CCRPI at 17 of the district’s 53 schools was the highest to date, and the overall high school score surpassed the state average.
All of which adds up to Muscogee closing its CCRPI gap with the state average. In 2013, MCSD’s 66.5 score was 9.3 points behind the state average of 75.8. In 2015, MCSD’s score of 69.0 was 6.5 points behind the state average of 75.5. The 2016 CCRPI scores are expected to be released next month.
Lewis said he was pleased with the progress of the plan but realizes the need for improvement, “particularly for our struggling schools. Given time for the initiatives and resources outlined in the plan to work, I believe we will realize those improvements if standards and CCRPI metrics remain consistent.”
As for MCSD’s scores on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, those are the highest since the district started keeping track 11 years ago.
Since 2013, combining the past three graduating classes, the district’s average composite SAT score has increased by 13 points to 1448, while the state average increased by 7 points to 1459 and the national average decreased by 14 points to 1484.
On the ACT, combining the past three graduating classes since 2013, the district’s average composite score has increased by 0.6 points to 19.4, while the state average increased by 0.4 points to 21.1, and the national average decreased by 0.1 point to 20.8.
MCSD’s graduation rate has increased by 13.3 percentage points, from 72.8 to 86.1, since Lewis became superintendent. That rate surpasses the state’s average of 79.2 and the nation’s average of 83.
This past school year was the second that the state’s graduating class isn’t required to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests since the high-stakes exams were phased out, but MCSD’s improvement of 9.5 percentage points outpaces the state’s average improvement of 6.7 percentage points during those two years.
MCSD’s graduation rate also is better than Georgia’s other second-tier cities, including Macon/Bibb County’s 71.6 percent, Savannah/Chatham County’s 83.2 and Augusta/Richmond County’s 76.7.
Through the dropout recovery program called Catapult Academy, which came to MCSD two years ago, 127 dropouts re-enrolled and earned a high school diploma in 2015-16. The district also regained the state revenue for those students.
In his initial assessment of the district, Lewis determined much of the instructional materials were outdated and too much of a hodge-podge to provide consistency throughout the system. Since then, MCSD had adopted and implemented district-wide, new instructional materials for literacy and math.
This is the third school year MCSD has used enVisionMATH in grades K-5, costing $960,815 over two fiscal years. In return, the district receives $3,899,718 in free materials. This also is the third school year MCSD elementary schools have been using the Reading Wonders curriculum, costing $1,755,022 over two fiscal years. In return, the district receives $5,126,230 in free materials.
In October 2015, the district implemented at its 13 lowest-performing schools a pilot program called Achieve3000, a web-based system that delivers differentiated instruction in nonfiction reading and writing. On a computer, students in a class read the same content in news articles from the Associated Press and National Geographic, but Achieve3000 tailors the complexity of the text to each student’s reading level.
MCSD will spend $630,000 over three fiscal years for Achieve3000.
This is the first school year MCSD is using “Georgia Collections,” the English language arts texts published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and “Leveled Literacy Intervention,” published by Heinemann, for grades 6-12, costing a total of $1,586,721.
Lewis implemented zero-based budgeting, which means the administration starts planning for each fiscal year without relying on the previous year’s budget, and all expenses must be justified by their current merits.
In July, on the state’s scale ranging from a low of 0.5 to a high of 5, the Muscogee County School District received 2 stars in a new measurement that compares academic performance to spending. MCSD, however, is the only school district among Georgia’s second-tier cities that has improved its academic performance while reducing its spending in each of the three years analyzed in the Financial Efficiency Star Ratings.
The ratings for the school districts in Georgia’s other second-tier cities are 2.5 stars for Augusta (Richmond) and 2 stars for Macon (Bibb) and Savannah (Chatham).
The ratings measure each district’s per-pupil expenditure in relation to its academic achievement, as expressed in the CCRPI. The ratings are based on a three-year average, comprising fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015.
During the Lewis administration, MCSD’s fund balance has grown from 31 days’ to 53 days’ worth of operating money while implementing the first and second phases of a three-phase plan to increase employee salaries that haven’t been raised, in some cases for approximately a decade.
Lewis also reorganized the district staff, creating three regions (East, Central and West), each led by a chief officer, to combat the divisive mindset of viewing Columbus through the lens of a prosperous north side and a disadvantaged south side.
From fiscal year 2014 to 2015, by cutting 122 central office positions (from 1,103 to 987), the administration saved $1,132,749 in salaries (from $27,289,907 to 26,157,158). That includes the addition of three region chiefs at $120,540 each.
MCSD has met all state performance targets for special-education students, achieving a perfect score of 100 points after receiving a 95 last year.
“Prior to that, we had not achieved those scores and had deficiencies in several areas,” Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer.
The score’s components include discipline, attendance and academic performance, he said.
After the superintendent presented his report to the Muscogee County School Board during Monday night’s meeting, chairman Rob Varner of District 5 thanked Lewis and told him, “It’s easy to see all the accomplishments of this staff of yours. I know you’ll be the first to say that it is not simply David Lewis doing all this — it’s these people in front of you, it’s the folks who report to them, and where the rubber meets the road, it’s the teachers.”
Janet Davis, president and chief executive officer of Kinetic Credit Union, chairs the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation, which hosted the event during which Lewis presented the report to community leaders and stakeholders.
She said the report, which uses “nationally recognized standards, as well as through the Georgia Department of Education metrics,” shows that the district has made great progress in three years. “Dr. Lewis has said it’s not where we want to be — where we need to be — but we are on a path to get there,” she said.
Davis said the foundation strongly supports the work of Lewis, whom she calls “a highly motivated leader,” and his administration.
“School systems are large institutions, and it takes a lot to move the needle, so it is remarkable that we are seeing this kind of great impact. The significant gains in the high school graduation rates are extremely compelling. Although we use numbers and statistics to convey progress, we must remember that these are lives that have been altered in a dramatically positive way.”
Bennie Newroth, a retired Columbus Regional Health government relations director who also taught social work at Columbus State University for more than 25 years, co-chaired the campaign committee for the renewal of the 1-percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which Muscogee voters approved last year to help fund the district’s capital projects.
Newroth said she felt “very positive” about the district’s progress under Lewis, and called the superintendent’s progress report “a valid assessment.”
“The test scores, graduation rate and other performance metrics speak for themselves,” she said.
Newroth mentioned two areas of concern: whether teachers have had sufficient time to train and integrate the new instructional materials and programs into the curriculum, and the need for more parental and community involvement.
“I think we are asking the schools to do too much,” she said. “They are being asked to be an educational institution and a social services agency.”
But Newroth said she didn’t see anything in the report about things that needed improvement. “I think any assessment should include areas that did not meet expectations,” she said.
Barbara Pierce, who served on the school board from 1993 to 2000 and now chairs the education committee for the Columbus NAACP, disagrees that Lewis’ report is a valid assessment. Speaking for the committee, Pierce said, “We find that this report does not measure the results of the failing schools, meaning the report only measures the progress of an overall school system.”
She said the assessment should address attendance, suspensions, discipline and parental involvement.
Another former board member, Fife Whitewide who served from 1993-2008, also questioned the report’s value.
“Just looking at cherry-picked data doesn’t really tell us much about success or failure of the superintendent or the school system,” he said. “It would be interesting to create a comprehensive report that looks at all the data and then suggest alternate conclusions, so that the public could decide.”
Frank Myers, the MCSD board’s District 8 representative, noted during Monday’s meeting that Muscogee is among only seven counties out of 159 in Georgia whose majority of voters favored the failed constitutional amendment to empower the state to take over chronically failing schools by a vote of 51 to 49 percent.
“I would submit to you that the vote of the people ... is the real report card, and as an administration and board, we got an F from the people who matter, the citizens of Muscogee County,” Myers said.
‘We have challenged schools’
Lewis said the district has improved faster than he expected.
“I really did not project that we’d be at this point for probably at least another year yet,” he said. “So I do think we’re moving the needle a little faster than I anticipated — but not as fast as I want.”
He said he has “a sense of urgency.”
“I’m always wanting things to occur and improve faster,” he said. “I’ll readily acknowledge that we have areas we want to improve on. We’re certainly not where we want to be, but the fact that within a short period of time we’ve seen pretty significant improvement in the right direction, that’s what we’re looking for: progress.”
The superintendent cautioned it will be tough to continue improving at such a pace.
“Every cohort of students is different, has different needs,” Lewis said. “So we may see some plateauing at some point, but right now the trajectory is forward, and we’re looking at trend over time.”
Asked for his biggest concern during the next year, Lewis mentioned that MCSD’s five-year accreditation is up for renewal next fall, so the district will be “revisiting our mission, vision and values and trying to really instill organizational health in terms of everybody being aligned — our behavior — as well as being smart.”
Lewis said the intent of the report was to give an overview of the district’s improvement as a whole and not examine schools individually.
“We recognize we have challenged schools, and we’re working with parents and communities,” he said.
He said he’s conducted evening meetings with parents at each failing school to address parental commitment and the importance of a quality education. His goal, he said, is to see all the schools removed from the state’s list of failing schools.
“Until that’s done, I’ll never be satisfied,” he said. “Period.”