A group of Decatur City Schools officials will visit a now-thriving Mobile elementary school that had one of the worst academic ratings in the nation less than a decade ago.
One reason for the trip to George Hall Elementary is to expose teachers, school board members and administrators to a school that has overcome “extreme” poverty, Superintendent Ed Nichols said.
George Hall, a K-5 school, had not made adequate yearly progress goals for eight consecutive years when the Mobile County school board “reconstituted” the school in 2004, Title 1 teacher Melissa Mitchell said.
“We were in jeopardy of losing all our federal money,” she said.
Four years after Mobile officials made an almost complete staffing change at the school where the poverty rate is 99 percent, George Hall became a National Blue Ribbon School and was lauded by the U.S. Department of Education for its turnaround.
While the situation is not as bleak in Decatur, local officials are facing a similar challenge at Brookhaven Middle School, where the school moved into “improvement year two” because it failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards.
Brookhaven’s poverty rate is 95 percent.
Because the school failed to meet all AYP goals last year, the law required school leaders to give students the choice of transferring to Cedar Ridge or Oak Park middle schools.
About 165, or 23 percent of the students, left.
Nichols and school board President Karen Duke said the two-day trip to Mobile that starts today is not necessarily just to address the situation at Brookhaven.
“I want to hear what they have done and apply it across the district,” Duke said.
Professional development money is paying for the trip.
Nichols said Decatur has poverty in every school, and that’s why teachers from across the district are going to George Hall. The Decatur system’s poverty rate is 62 percent.
“I wanted our teachers to see something that is happening outside of the Decatur area,” the superintendent said. “This school is a model in the state and nation.”
George Hall’s “transformation” started in 2004 when the school board required every employee at the school to re-apply for their job, take a mandatory transfer or retire if they were eligible, Mitchell said.
Only two of the existing employees at the school of about 500 students were retained. Terri Tomlinson became the new principal and recruited the new staff.
Most of the teachers were eligible for signing bonuses of up to $40,000 over five years if standardized tests scores improved.
Mitchell said fifth-graders were reading at a second-grade level when she came in 2004.
By 2010, she said 99 percent of third- and fourth-graders had passed the Alabama Reading and Mathematics test.
“A lot of good teaching and collaboration among staff has been the key,” Mitchell said. “We use common lesson plans and we looked at where every student was.”
Brookhaven reached 26 of its 29 goals.
The school missed in subgroup goals of special education reading, special education math and limited English proficiency reading.
Nichols said his school system has been in contact with George Hall for about two years. The result of the visit could mean changes across the district, he said.
“We are going with the idea of looking for ways to improve the entire system,” Nichols said.
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