COVINGTON — For the first time, Newton County School System Superintendent Gary Mathews met with a group of educational stakeholders for a community forum.
At an invitation-only event Tuesday morning, Mathews discussed the state of the system with about 50 community members, including government officials, business leaders, higher education representatives, PTO and school council members and NCSS employees as part of his first Superintendent's Community Leadership Forum.
"I have always thought ... that no community is better than its public schools," he told the group, adding that having high-performing schools is helpful to economic development. "We have some bright spots, but we have some very challenging spots as well."
He said that areas of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests have shown improvement over the past year, but most areas still trail the state averages.
Mathews said that while many elementary schools are performing on target, numbers for pass rates on the Georgia High School Graduation Test have declined, and many high school students are struggling with the new math curriculum, which has changed throughout the state several times over the last few years.
"We have to be about continuous improvement to be about the main work — how well our students learn," Mathews said. "We have a challenging year ahead of us for the school system and the community at large."
On a good note, Mathews said more students are earning Work Ready certificates that tell employers that students are ready for certain types of employment. Additionally, more English Language Learners are expected to pass the subject this year.
Mathews also hopes SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores will increase since SAT scores have decreased by 26 points in reading, 49 points in math and 24 points in writing over the last five years, and only 58 students, or 10 percent of those who took the ACT last spring, were declared college ready.
"That's a very challenging number," he said. "We've had a dramatic shift in our students."
Most testing areas and other areas that determine Adequate Yearly Progress like testing participation and elementary school attendance need to increase this school year. Since 17 out of 23 schools earned AYP last school year, if results were to remain the same this school year, 19 out of 23 of the schools would not make AYP this year because of a required increase in performance areas, Mathews said.
"It's very challenging," he said. "And we will not be alone."
Mathews hopes student performance will increase as a result of two non-negotiable goals that educators must act on: increased student achievement and more effective teaching. In addition, NCSS must have system-level "capacity-building," which would be developed through research-based instructional strategies, building background knowledge and technology integration, as well as building-level professional learning communities with teams of teacher problem solving, followup and reflection on instruction and its impact, being results-oriented and honoring and empowering teachers, he said.
This will come in the form of education seminars, educators building vocabulary and life experiences during the school day, implementing more digital technology in all classrooms instead of always lecturing, and examining school data and solving problems, among others, he said.
"As we learn more, our kids will, too," Mathews said. "It's all about the kids and their learning."
Mathews plans to hold another community forum April 12.
Editor's note, Nov. 19, 2010: A revision was made to this article after publication to show that 58 Newton County students, or 10 percent of those who took the ACT last spring, were declared college ready.