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Newton school board to decide on high school schedules

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Education may decide by March whether the system's high schools will operate on a different schedule next school year.

Newton County School System Superintendent Gary Mathews is proposing that the school board approve a change to the schedule for high schools from the current 4X4 block schedule to a seven-period day schedule that would include a focus period. The change is part of a list of possible cuts that Mathews proposed last month to help the system find about $9 million to cut from next school year's budget to make up for expected losses in local, state and federal revenues.

Mathews said the change could save NCSS $2,820,000.

"Moreover, such a move holds prospects for greater student achievement," he said in a memo to school board members.

If approved, 47 teacher positions would be reduced. With teacher salaries ranging from $32,049 to $75,741, plus 32 percent to cover benefits, NCSS is using a $60,000 average of salary and benefits to calculate the savings, according to documents released by NCSS.

The documents show that each high school would experience a 13 percent decrease in teachers -- 18 at Alcovy High School, 12 at Eastside High School and 17 at Newton High School. Current salary estimates for the 363 teachers at the three high schools are about $21,720,000; with the reduction in staff, they would be reduced to about $18,900,000 for 315 teachers.

NCSS hasn't discussed publicly any logistics regarding student schedules and credits.

Mathews is looking to Union Grove High School in Henry County for guidance on such a change. The school currently offers a seven-period day that includes a focus period.

Mathews, who visited the school in December with other NCSS administrators, has noted that the school has been named one of America's best high schools by Newsweek Magazine for five years in a row.

Administrators from Union Grove High School spoke to the Newton County BOE during its monthly work session Tuesday night to discuss how the schedule and an instructional focus period have helped that school.

After realizing the school's Students With Disabilities subgroup had a large number of students fail the math portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests and its graduation rate was just under 82 percent for the 2007-08 school year, school administrators became focused on becoming a high performing high school, Principal Tom Smith said.

"You have to improve one student at a time," Smith said. "It takes courage on everybody's part to make change happen for every student. We've been able to move forward as a result."

At Union Grove, students can take six mandatory credit classes and one instructional focus class for which students don't receive credit; students also have the choice to take seven credit classes without a focus period, unless they are required to recover a previously missed credit.

The focus period is open to all students -- from those who need to make up credits to those in Advanced Placement classes.

Smith said the school was having a difficult time getting students to come before and after school for needed help and makeup work, so this helps with that.

During the nearly 30-minute focus period, students work on homework, get tutored on AP work, retake tests or classes and receive general enrichment.

Last year, the school's graduation rate was up to 92 percent; the school also met Adequate Yearly Progress and had 53 percent of its AP students earn a 3 or higher on AP exams. Its average SAT score also went up 31 points to 1007.

Additionally, 98 percent of students passed the language arts and math portions of the Georgia High School Graduation Test, 96 percent passed science and 92 percent passed social studies. The system also scored above the state in many areas of the End of Course Tests.

Although there is no data to prove it, school officials also have seen improvement in discipline areas.

During the meeting, NHS Principal Craig Lockhart said research in math has shown that students learn better when they take a math course over a year-long period.

"Instructionally, it's a more sound decision," he said. "We have been impressed with what we've heard."

AHS Principal LaQuanda Carpenter said she believes that block scheduling is better for teachers, but the seven-period schedule seems better for students.

"If you have the right people in the right seats doing the right work, students will benefit," she said.

Mathews said the system wouldn't be looking into reverting back to a traditional schedule for the high schools if it weren't for the budget crisis.

"Since we are here this year, we need to look at educational opportunities to draw something good out of something not so good," he said.

Mathews encouraged school board members to make a decision later this month and attempt to vote on a plan in March. The school board plans to meet on March 8 for a work session and March 15 for a regular session meeting. Meetings are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the board room at the Newton County BOE building, which is located at 2105 Newton Drive NE in Covington.

"The sooner we know, the better," he said. "A lot of planning will go into this."

If approved, staff will be trained throughout the summer and into the school year, Mathews said.