Fayette ranks high among Georgia schools — but we can do better
If you ask a family that has relocated to Fayette County why they chose to live here, one of the answers will likely be the quality of the school system. The school system was one of the reasons my wife and I chose to live here when we were house hunting. My children attended Fayette County schools from elementary through high school. All three are now in college or graduated.
I appreciate the many skilled teachers who invested in them and helped develop their talents and abilities to prepare them for the next level of education. That is one of the best measures of a good school system.
Parents seeking information on the local school system used to rely on anecdotes such as mine. You learned about the school system by talking to the parents who lived in the community. Of course, such assessments could be very tainted by a number of subjective factors that may affect a parent’s judgment. The opinion of the school may vary depending on which parent one asks.
President Bush’s No Child Left Behind attempted to make school assessments more objective by focusing on numerical measures of school performance. Federal funding for education became tied to what were considered to be objective measures of school performance: graduation rates, standardized test scores, and the percentage of students who meet learning goals at each grade level.
Fayette County has fared well using these objective measures of school quality. Fayette’s graduation rate of 94 percent far exceeds the state average of 79 percent. Fayette’s total SAT score of 1555 surpasses the state average of 1450 and the national average of 1493. And, Fayette County ranks near the top for students passing their end of course tests.
In fact, Fayette County is the only system of its size in Georgia to have all of its schools meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress standards for seven consecutive years.
Whether by personal experience or by objective measures, Fayette County schools clearly stand out when compared to others in the state or across the nation. However, there is always room for improvement and asking how we can do even better. Doing better is not just measured by increasing our scores to the next level; doing better means offering our students the opportunity to get the most out of their school experience.
Individually, our schools offer students many opportunities to excel. For example, several schools in Fayette County are among the best in the nation when it comes to the Science Olympiad competition or the National Economics Challenge competition. Fayette schools also do well offering gifted and AP programs to challenge high performing students and providing programs to accommodate students with special needs.
While individual schools have some excellent programs, I believe we can do better as a school system by creating more opportunities for students to work at a higher level than their current grade levels.
The structure of education in Georgia is changing. The boundaries that divide high school from college are less rigid than in the past and allow qualified students the option of taking college coursework to meet some of their high school requirements.
Some of the policy changes have lead to the creation of institutions that embody this new type of collaboration between secondary and post-secondary institutions.
In Newnan there is the Central Education Center that offers high school students the opportunity to earn technical college degrees in information technology, cosmetology, construction technology, automotive technology and 15 other areas of study.
In McDonough, Henry County built the Academy for Advanced Studies and brought in Clayton State to offer dual-enrollment courses and a technical college to offer vocational programs.
Similarly, Rockdale and Newton counties each built new academies to offer college and technical programs for students still in high school.
Working across traditional divisional lines can be difficult, but it is in the best interest of the student for us to do so. While other counties have focused primarily on providing technical education to high school students, the high level of student performance we have in Fayette County gives us the opportunity to provide a new system that serves the needs of college-bound students.
This fall, Clayton State has a record 240 students participating in the dual-enrollment program. This makes us one of the largest dual-enrollment providers in the state. I believe we can do even better.
I am committed to our dual-enrollment program because I believe it is one of the best opportunities we can offer students in this community.
Dual-enrolled students learn how to work at the college level while still enrolled in high school with the support of their guidance counselors and family. They are taught at the college level, taught by college faculty using the college format, and studying with other college students.
If the Fayette cohort of dual-enrollment students was assessed as a freshmen class, their SAT scores would make them the fourth ranked class in the university system. Such peers make for a rich learning environment.
Not only is the dual-enrollment program enriching for students academically, it also saves families money. Given that over half of all HOPE qualified freshmen statewide will lose their eligibility after just one year, the more prepared students are, the better they will perform in college. And, of course, earning the college credits in high school means they will not need to be paid for at a higher rate later on.
This December, we will have a dual-enrollment student graduate with an associate’s degree. He will enter college full-time as a junior and be that much closer to attending graduate school as he plans. While the path he has blazed will not be right for everyone, I want as many students as possible to have that opportunity.
We are fortunate that we do not need to build a new system from scratch. We already have one of the top school systems in the state and we have a record of success with dual-enrollment at Clayton State.
But, now is the time to step up and go to the next level. Doing well on a state report card is not enough. We need to build bold programs that offer students the opportunity to maximize their education before and after graduating from high school.
Other counties have gotten off to a head start, but I believe that we can create something unique here in Fayette County that helps us keep our head above the crowd.
I do not know exactly what this new entity will look like. One of the few advantages to decreased financial resources is that it opens the door for more innovative solutions and collaborative efforts.
Personally, I like the idea of a program that allows juniors and seniors to take college courses full-time and complete all of their general education requirements as well as advanced courses in mathematics and the sciences. Such a system may be in a new building like a charter or magnet school, or it may be integrated into existing schools.
What is important is that we move forward and create the type of flexible and multi-faceted educational system that I believe will become standard in the near-future.
The counties that have built new collaborative programs have not replaced the traditional school structure. Most students still go to conventional schools and follow the traditional path to graduation. But, what they have done is provide an opportunity for students to take a new route to graduation that fits their intellectual and social needs.
In the future, when potential homebuyers and businesses are looking for a place to relocate, we need to be able to provide evidence that Fayette County has adapted to meet the needs of all types of students. There are other counties that have started the race before us, but I believe that, in the end, we can do better.
[Dr. Kevin Demmitt is associate vice president for extended programs, Clayton State University, and oversees all off-campus sites and distance education programs, including the Fayette campus, located at 1200 Commerce Dr. in Peachtree City.]