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Pursuing Higher Standards
Georgia programs seek to align K-12 instruction with higher education

By Doug Cumming

Darien, Georgia

Savannah State University Freshman Joseph Austin
Savannah State University Freshman Joseph Austin is one of 32 McIntosh County Academy graduates -- one-third of the senior class -- who enrolled in college.
THE TIDAL MARSHLANDS of McIntosh County, midway down the Atlantic coast of Georgia, have long held the young descendants of 18th century Highlander settlers and 19th century freed slaves with the promise of a life around shrimp boats or pulp mills. Even today, it is hard for many of the county's children to see beyond the fading bounty of the ocean, the pine woods or low-paying jobs at Magnolia Bluff Factory Outlet Mall, which serves traffic passing through to Florida on Interstate 95.

In a county where 40 percent of the housing stock is in mobile homes and 44 percent of the adult population lacks a high school diploma, last year's 91-student senior class at old, public McIntosh County Academy showed only faint evidence of rising standards. Twenty-seven failed to get their diplomas because of Georgia's new graduation examination. Thirty-two went on to college.

One of the 32 is Joseph Austin, a compactly muscled, courteous 18-year-old freshman now at historically black Savannah State University. Austin, in a sense, was lucky. His mother and father pushed him to take college prep courses and not to let the fact that he was a star running back on the high school football team interfere with more practical, academic aspirations. Austin hopes to become a physical therapist.

But despite the fact that his full tuition is paid by Georgia's lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program (a popular entitlement for all in-state undergraduates with a B or better average in academic subjects), Austin is ill-prepared for college-level work. After doggedly taking the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) five times, along with two SAT-prep classes, he scored no better than a combined 800 out of 1600. His score on the verbal section -- 350 out of 800 -- was especially troubling, forcing him into a remedial reading course at Savannah State.

A tendency to panic on tests is part of his problem, according to his high school teachers, who speak well of Austin's dedication and basic intelligence. But Caroline Pitts, the math teacher who finally broke down the mysteries of Advanced Math and Algebra II for him in a way Austin said no teacher had done before, identified a deeper problem -- gaping holes in his background knowledge.

Austin came through the McIntosh school system before some dramatic changes began taking effect. The schools were rife with social promotion, lax course-selection even in the college prep track, and less-than-challenging courses under challenging-sounding titles. It was a time "when nice kids got promoted, and it didn't matter what courses they signed up for," said Pitts, now the high school's curriculum director.

The slackness in Austin's schooling is a problem he shares with a vast number of college-bound students throughout the country. Weak background has drawn special attention in Georgia, for the paradoxical reason that economic prosperity and the HOPE scholarships are firing up college ambitions among some of the most poorly prepared students in the nation. Georgia's average SAT score (968) is 49 points below the national average. More than 23 percent of the state's high school graduates entering its public colleges take remedial courses.

Georgia's P-16 (preschool through college) Initiative is an attempt to solve problems like Joseph Austin's. On the hypothesis that the gaps in these students' back- ground are caused by other problems, such as the disjunctions among each of the scattered pieces of the whole education picture, the state is now three years into one of the most ambitious efforts in the country to link higher education more closely with elementary and secondary schools.

The project includes not only business leaders desperate for better qualified entry-level job applicants, but also representatives from entirely separate educational spheres -- the 34-campus University System of Georgia; the K-12 Department of Education; many of the 180 virtually autonomous local school boards; a 33-campus technical school department; the state's teacher-licensing agency; and even the state agency for lottery-funded preschools.

Hannah Tostensen, superintendent of schools in McIntosh County, Georgia
Hannah Tostensen, superintendent of schools in McIntosh County, Georgia, insists on high standards for both students and teachers as she seeks to improve academic achievement in
the county.
McIntosh County Academy is a good example of how the P-16 Initiative can transform a public school. Unfortunately, it may be one of the few good examples in Georgia. The effort has taken root in McIntosh County largely because a few administrators felt a pressing need to raise standards for their low-achieving students. The administrators had been embracing one reform after another, including cooperation with the nearest public two-year college, when P-16 came along.

It came at the right time. "You can't just continue to fly by the seat of your pants," said McIntosh County Superintendent Hannah Tostensen. "To me, P-16 provides the focus, and reminds us all to come back to what we're about -- good instruction. How is the pre-kindergarten class going to prepare itself to do well in the kindergarten class?"

P-16 began with the full support of then-Governor Zell Miller, but is really the creation of Stephen Portch, the British-born chancellor of the University System of Georgia since 1994. At the center of this brazen, boundary-crossing endeavor is a central committee, the Georgia P-16 Council, which meets quarterly with 30 to 40 representatives from all the slices of the public education pie.

There are also 15 regional P-16 councils, displayed on a colorful map in Portch's Atlanta office. Each is a kind of roundtable club of volunteer leaders, mostly from schools and campuses within an area about the size of a congressional district.

The state council sets guidelines for the local regional councils, identifies state policies that further fragment the overall education system, and tries to create change "through established governing channels." Portch and his staff members use this last phrase frequently, as a cautionary shield. The entire P-16 effort is always at risk of being shot at by anyone who cares to point out that it has no real power under Georgia's state constitution.

Even the endorsement of Governor Miller, who left office in January after a limit of two four-year terms, was notably quiet. The new governor, Roy Barnes, a Democrat who was elected last November, is already talking about creating a commission to examine education from top to bottom and to promote a "seamless" system, but has said little about P-16's current attempt to do just that.

This is P-16's main dilemma: The initiative is doing the hard labor of comprehensive reform in Georgia, yet its proponents must keep their heads down lest the religious right, skeptical professors or traditionalists in the public schools or state Department of Education say "boo." Privately, some local school superintendents say that P-16 is not a high priority for them.

As the patrons of P-16, Portch's university system and its governing board of regents must guard against stepping out of bounds. "You have to work constantly with your colleagues, especially in the Department of Education [which oversees the state's $5.8-billion K-12 budget], to reassure them that P-16 is nothing more than trying to get people to work together," Portch said.

P-16 is not Portch's only effort to reach down into the lower grades to better prepare Georgia students for college. In the summer of 1996 he pilot-tested the Postsecondary Readiness Enrichment Program (PREP), which exposes ordinary students as early as eighth grade to the realities of college. Today, the program involves 248 middle schools and 25 campuses across the state.

PREP has three levels of programs. At the broadest level, which can be visualized as the base of a pyramid reaching the largest group of students, PREP offers day trips for middle-schoolers to university system campuses. In a few remote districts, campus officials visit the middle schools. Last year, the students also began viewing a nine-minute PREP videotape on postsecondary and job market expectations. At the very least, Portch would like this minimal amount of exposure to reach all middle-schoolers; last year it reached 33,000, about a third of those who will make up the Georgia high school class of 2003.

At the next level of PREP, some 12,000 of those same students are getting lessons during the school year, in after-school or Saturday programs, on the whys and hows of preparing for college. At the top of the pyramid, about 4,000 of them attend a summer program on a university system campus, with faculty drawn from the campus, the sending schools and the community.

Joseph Austin and his tenth-grade younger brother Jermaine were too old for PREP when it started at the middle school in McIntosh County. But their younger brothers Langston and Lyle, twins in eighth grade, are both in the after-school PREP program. Portch's funding pays for the long bus ride to their home at the end of a Spanish-moss shaded dirt road.

Caroline Pitts, curriculum director of McIntosh County Academy
Caroline Pitts, curriculum director of McIntosh County Academy, has tried to align the high school's classes with those of nearby two and four-year colleges.
Portch considers P-16 and PREP to be closely related, like siblings -- except that the younger sibling, PREP, costs about twice as much, currently $3 million a year. Both endeavors aim to foster higher postsecondary standards, whether for college, vocational school or the job market. P-16 works at the top on the grownups and their policies; PREP works at the bottom on the kids and their outlook. P-16's objectives float far off on a hazy horizon ten or 15 years away, with no end in sight; PREP aims to prepare students for higher university system admission standards taking effect in 2001.

Portch is counting on both programs to become so integral to local schools and campuses, so manifestly successful, that by 2001 other state departments and local institutions will keep them running as he begins backing away as their main supporter. Most of the funding he has secured for PREP and P-16 has come from private foundations.

A less talked-about goal that both programs share is boosting the number of African American students who can succeed in the university system. With the system currently fighting a federal lawsuit against race-conscious admission policies at the flagship University of Georgia, and the percentage of African American students there dropping despite those policies, Portch is looking for non-racial alternatives to affirmative action, should the courts decisively strike it down in the future.

PREP recruits students not by race, but by other characteristics that predict low aspiration for college, such as poverty or parents' lack of education, and also looks for signs of academic potential and self-control. The students selected this way are disproportionately African American, but not by much -- 52 percent, compared to an overall black student population in Georgia of 37 percent.

Georgia's P-16 initiative is part of a national movement to improve student performance by tying higher education and K-12 more closely together. So far, however, the most dramatic successes have been in local areas like El Paso, Texas and Long Beach, California. Only Georgia and Maryland have launched statewide efforts.

Portch believes the combination of P-16 and PREP is something totally new in American education. "And what the nation's going to learn from us is that it's scaleable," meaning it can be done on the scale of the largest state east of the Mississippi. "El Paso is a wonderful story, but it's a contained city. Putting your arms around a city and putting your arms around a whole state are two different things."

The challenges for P-16 have been as various as the landscapes of Georgia.

The Metro Atlanta P-16 Community Council is using classroom teachers to write grade-by-grade benchmarks and "performance standards," but the process seems to be reinventing several wheels.

Two of the school districts in that council -- Atlanta and Gwinnett County -- already have produced grade-by-grade standards on their own, and the state Department of Education has completed a two-year revision of the state curriculum that it also proudly calls "standards." The department is rushing to build expensive new tests around that curriculum, not waiting to see what the Metro council means by "performance standards."

Chancellor Stephen Portch of the University System of Georgia
Chancellor Stephen Portch of the University System of Georgia, has been instrumental in creating Georgia's P-16 (pre-school through college) councils.
Creating standards -- both content and benchmarks for testing -- is a tedious process that the P-16 Initiative has deemed important on the theory that the task of aligning K-12 instruction with college admission and teacher-training requires a common blueprint.

But the theory seems painfully remote from the daily difficulties teachers face. "Whatever standards are on the book, you've got a disconnect between that and what's actually happening in the classroom," said Rob Baird, president of the Atlanta-based National Faculty, an organization that for 30 years has rejuvenated classroom teachers through collaboration with university scholars in their fields. Baird, who has attended Metro P-16 meetings and set up National Faculty school partnerships in El Paso and Long Beach, is frustrated by the long-term and abstract nature of P-16's systemic approach.

He said the effort is counting too much on molding up-and-coming teachers. "P-16 people know the teachers in the classroom now are going to be there another ten or 15 years," Baird said. "What are you going to do to help them?" His answer is to form school-college collaborations that focus more on the school environment, less on remote discussions of higher standards.

A year and a half ago, in the sandy, flat edge of South Georgia, an aggressive new school superintendent was dismissed after losing his school board's trust over the way he embraced a series of reforms -- including work with the South Georgia Regional P-16 Council.

"I was a change agent. I realize that," said Gary Walker, the former superintendent of Valdosta city schools. Walker's initiatives ran afoul of teachers and the local community, stirring anonymous threats and even talk of boycotts against board members' businesses. Among Walker's attempted reforms were a policy to identify teachers who needed help, and a more objective method for assigning courses appropriate to students' abilities, to abolish what he considered arbitrary two-tier tracking.

The South Georgia P-16 Council, which is centered at the education college at Valdosta State University, the local public campus, was not the cause of the uproar. In fact, Walker said he joined the council to enlist Valdosta State's help in implementing the standards he was trying to set. But his involvement in the council became one more bit of suspicious behavior held against him.

The local P-16 council lost support because it was associated with Walker and his reforms. To be sure, the local council contributed to its own difficulties by tending to speak in education school jargon that sounded a lot like Walker's reform lingo. "P-16's biggest problem is that the ‘ivory tower' is out of touch with reality," Nolen Cox, a local education gadfly, wrote to an official at Valdosta State's education college in the aftermath of Walker's dismissal.

Cox happens to live in Valdosta, but his position as director of the American Family Association of Georgia, the state affiliate of Donald Wildmon's Christian Right organization, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, gives his critiques of P-16 a larger political platform.

In his newsletter on education, Board Notes, Cox has linked the P-16 Initiative with vague Big-Brother goals, a United Nations humanist agenda and an educational philosophy that he calls holistic and psychological, as opposed to academic. He believes most good teachers quickly shake off the nonsense they learned in education school. But he fears they now will defer to education professors once again through P-16, which he said "is designed to have the college do the in-service training for your local school…It's back to re-programming and re-training your teachers."

Cox ignores the fact that every P-16 group must include college-level arts and sciences faculty members, to ensure that K-12 standards connect to real subjects, not just to educational theory. Among the gaps P-16 is trying to bridge is one of the most notorious -- the chasm between education schools and their colleagues in arts and sciences.

For the first time in their careers, professors and deans from fields such as history, physics and literature are meeting with their counterparts in education schools and with public school representatives, to work out the proper balance between subject-matter knowledge and instructional methodology.

"That's revolutionary," said Portch, a former literature professor. "If my English faculty are talking to some high school English teachers, that's revolutionary."

Maybe it is his British upbringing, or his canny grasp of Georgia politics, but Portch is careful not to push this revolution too far. "If there are other problems in a school district, and P-16 is around," he said, citing Valdosta, "then P-16 gets caught up in those controversies."

Walker, the former Valdosta superintendent who is now a lobbyist for an association that represents principals and superintendents around the state, agrees that he pushed too hard. But he also said that P-16 will not succeed, in a pinch, for the very reason that it is incapable of pushing hard. "If you're going to make change, you've got to make change," he said.

When his adversaries started attacking the South Georgia P-16 Council, Walker called Portch in hopes of getting a statement of support but, he said, "I couldn't even get him to return my phone calls. When things get hot, you can't find them anywhere."

Portch said he can't fight the mantra of local control in Georgia. "We're very dependent on cooperative partnerships. We don't have any power or authority. It's based on trust."

Trust, yes, but also the kind of determination that the Southeast Georgia P-16 Regional Council found in people at the grass-roots level in McIntosh County, in coastal Georgia -- people like Hannah Tostensen, superintendent of schools since 1992, and Caroline Pitts, curriculum director at McIntosh County Academy.

Tostensen had done graduate work at the University of Georgia for years with Carl Glickman -- author of two books on democratizing American schools, and leader of a league of public schools where teacher teams improve instruction by what he calls "action research."

Tostensen's style is to encourage risk-taking by others, Pitts said.

Tostensen also passionately believes that rigorous standards are the only way to narrow the widening gap in academic achievement between disadvantaged and middle-class students.
Tostensen's greatest challenge has come not from folks resisting higher standards, but from parents who do not trust her to raise standards enough -- for African American children. Such distrust echoes a long history of racial tension and accommodation in McIntosh County. African American activists who feel they have fought hard to force the system to expect more of black boys than going into the Army have had heated confrontations with Tostensen, who is white.

The issues seem to boil down to distrust. Many of the 18 teachers who left or were dismissed in the last few years were African American, and Tostensen won't hire other black teachers, despite pressure from parents to do so, until she finds candidates who meet her standards. African American parents support in principle the district's crack-down on discipline problems, but resent the fact that most of the discipline is carried out by white teachers against black students.

Richard and Cheryl Austin, of McIntosh County, Georgia, shown with three of their five sons, hope collaboration between public schools and higher education will prepare their children to compete
Richard and Cheryl Austin, of McIntosh County, Georgia, shown with three of their five sons, hope collaboration between public schools and higher education will prepare their children to compete "against kids all over the world."
Pitts, married to a descendant of one of McIntosh County's early Scottish settlers, started her teaching career there in 1969, but taught in Florida for 17 years before coming back to the McIntosh County school system in 1994.

Teaching eighth grade general math in Florida, she had made a startling discovery. Her students scored four years ahead of their grade level in math on standardized tests in eighth grade, but after taking algebra the next year, they scored below grade level. The problem turned out to be a wildly disjointed curriculum. The more Pitts looked into it, the more she embraced the need to line up curriculum in a year-to-year sequence that builds logically.

Pitts helped put this into practice at McIntosh County Academy by working with the nearest two-year public college to align standards. This "vertical articulation" of curriculum and standards was then picked up by the Southeast Georgia P-16 Council, which widened the work to include faculty at Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State universities and made Pitts more aware of similar efforts in surrounding districts.

Teachers at McIntosh County Academy, almost half of them hired in the last few years, know exactly what they are expected to teach, Pitts said. Most of them have strong liberal arts credentials. And the students know exactly what they are expected to learn.

"Our personal philosophy here is that they will get it," said Pitts, whose position this year as curriculum director puts her smack in the middle of the changes at the high school. "We don't accept the premise that some children are going to get it and they're the ones that will get the goodies, and the rest of them are going to sit over here."

Other changes at the high school, mostly made in the context of the Southeast Georgia P-16 Council's meetings and newsletters, have fed off one another at a frantic pace.

The school adopted a block schedule with 90-minute classes, allowing teachers to cover material with more sustained depth. A Johns Hopkins University professor introduced a reading-comprehension program called Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition into the adjoining middle school. Tech Prep, a program designed to raise college prep and vocational students alike to standards that combine the best of both tracks, is being phased in for all students. Eighth grade students and their parents are brought in for an intensive advisement session that forces them to plan for the future. The school is taking more seriously than ever the retention of students who have not mastered work appropriate to their grade level.

This spring, in an initiative that comes directly out of the regional P-16 council, the acting head of Armstrong Atlantic's early childhood education program will lead a graduate-level course for McIntosh County Academy teachers on the theory and practice of standards.

According to Pitts, the results so far are encouraging. "We've seen progress in anything that can be measured," he said.

Between 1996 and 1998, the average SAT score for the seniors who took the test -- still only about a third of the class -- rose from 748 to 901. The rate of juniors passing all five sections of the Georgia high school graduation test on their first try rose from 45 percent in 1997, the first time all sections were required, to 52 percent last spring.

A padlocked, slotted wooden box of discipline referrals in the office sits empty for weeks at a time.

Still, progress in McIntosh County is perilously behind the world that lies beyond its back roads and drowsy estuaries.

Richard Austin, the father of Joseph and four younger boys, knows this well. He grew up in New Jersey and lived in various states while in the military, before building a home here on the dirt road where several of his wife Cheryl's relatives live. Cheryl, although her lineage goes back to the county's freed black families of Reconstruction, also inherited the vision of a larger world from a father who left McIntosh County at 18 to seek his fortune in New York City.

Richard and Cheryl Austin appreciate improvements at the school, which they have heard have something to do with a group called P-16, but they keep pushing the school and their children. "My family is not to the point where everything is hunky-dory," Richard Austin said. "If they bring home an A, we're not satisfied. I'm not sure they deserve an A. In fact, I count it as a B. They're not just competing with Liberty and Glynn counties. They're competing against Detroit, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, against kids all over. Germany. I don't want them to ever settle for just saying they were in the top six percent of McIntosh County."

Richard's oldest son, Joseph, absorbed this message with little resistance. "Plus, I had my brothers looking up to me, being older," Joseph said in an interview in his Savannah State dorm. He left his 1986 Cutlass Supreme back home so he could concentrate on his studies.

It hasn't been easy. If he had known back in ninth grade what he knows now, Joseph said, he would have concentrated more on his school work. During a recent weekend visit back home, Joseph tried to pass on to his tenth-grade brother Jermaine some of what college has made him realize. Joseph told his brother to read more, and to push himself to read faster.

Whether the P-16 Initiative can carry the hard, exciting message of college, like the wisdom of a big brother, to hundreds of thousands of Georgia children remains to be seen. But many of those who have been drawn to P-16 seem to take the position that the need is too great to sit around wondering if it will work.

"This may not be the best solution; it's certainly not the only one, and may not be a solution," said Frank Butler, the academic affairs vice president at Armstrong Atlantic State University and co-chairman of the Southeast Georgia P-16 Council.

"But nobody has anything else on the table," he said. "My view is we have got to make this work."

Doug Cumming covers education for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Photos by Oscar Sosa and Robin Nelson, Blackstar, for CrossTalk

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