By Doug Cumming
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.
|Savannah State University Freshman Joseph
Austin is one of 32 McIntosh County Academy graduates -- one-third of the senior
class -- who enrolled in college.
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
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.
|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
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.
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.
|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 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."
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.
|Chancellor Stephen Portch of the University System of Georgia, has
been instrumental in creating Georgia's P-16 (pre-school through college) councils.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
|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."
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
"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
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
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
"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.