Varnell Elementary is a Distinguished School, while New Hope Elementary and Tunnel Hill Elementary are Reward Schools, according to lists released earlier this winter by the Georgia Department of Education.
Prior to being named superintendent of Whitfield County Schools in 2013, Judy Gilreath served as assistant superintendent of Student Support Services, and she noticed that, all too often, "each school did their own thing," so when she took over as superintendent, she made "getting everyone on the same page" a priority, she said. "That focused direction is paying off."
The Distinguished Schools designation recognizes the highest-performing Title I schools in Georgia, while the Reward Schools designation recognizes Title I schools making the greatest improvements, according to the state Department of Education. Schools must be Title I to be eligible for the Distinguished School and Reward School designations and must not be currently identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement or Targeted Support and Improvement.
Title I schools receive federal funds for Title I students. The program provides funding to schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty.
Distinguished Schools are among the highest-performing 5% of Title I Schoolwide schools and Title I Targeted Assistance schools, while Reward Schools are among the greatest-improving 5% of Title I Schoolwide schools and Title I Targeted Assistance schools, according to the state Department of Education. Reward Schools also have to maintain the performance of their economically-disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English learners in order to be recognized with Reward status.
Varnell Elementary's overall score on the state's College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) jumped 18% from 2018 to 2019, and scores in individual content areas were all improved, as well, said Audrey Williams, assistant superintendent in charge of accountability and assessment. The school also reduced "red flags" in individual segments from 16 to eight, which is "very, very good."
Having schools on these lists of honor is not only a credit to the students, but also to the teachers, who "have got to be on their best every day working with kids," Gilreath said. "You don't get to have a 'down day' as a teacher."
Teachers at Varnell Elementary are "lifelong learners" committed to using best practices from the latest research, and they "work diligently to meet students' diverse academic needs," said Lisa Jones, the school's principal. "Relationships are a priority" at the school, so "students feel loved, valued and supported by all staff members."
Varnell Elementary "cares about the whole child and strives to meet their social, emotional, physical and mental needs as well as their academics, (because) we believe that it is essential to identify and address the non-academic needs in order for students to reach their maximum potential," Jones added. "Varnell's mission is to provide consistency, stability and support to enable students to learn and experience success."
"Being recognized with this honor validates our continual effort toward student growth and achievement," Jones concluded. "Ultimately, we are proud of what our students and staff have accomplished, and we strive to continue to grow."
Tunnel Hill is "honored" to be named a Reward School, said Connie Kopcsak, the school's principal. "With a focus on rigor and meeting individual student needs, teachers work hard each day to help students be successful in all areas of life."
New Hope is "excited" about the growth of the school's achievement rates for various student subgroups, which placed New Hope in the top 5% of greatest-improving Title I schools in the state, said Carla Maret, the school's principal. "Our subgroups — consisting of economically-disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English Language Learners — all met their improvement targets at 3% and 6% rates of increase in reading and math, (and) we attribute this success to multiple factors, including a focus of attention on small-group instruction in all grade levels and targeting our interventions to meet specific student needs in reading and math."
The "heavy concentration on literacy" throughout the school system has paid dividends, Gilreath said. "We have a literacy plan, we have our summer reading feeder program, and we give books away to kids."
Developing an official literacy plan was important, because, among other benefits, it made the system eligible for myriad grants, which are pivotal, because many literacy initiatives are "expensive," Gilreath said. The system has procured more than $7 million in grants for literacy programs in the past four years.
That emphasis on literacy extends to all school system employees, as administrators and other support staff often go into classrooms to read to elementary students, including during the week before Christmas vacation, said Williams. "We're in there, we're reading, and it may seem like a small thing, but showing our love for reading makes a big impact on students."
The state Department of Education also released a list of Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools, and Phoenix High School is in that designation. The Department of Education’s Office of School Improvement works directly with CSI schools and provides assistance to help them improve.
CSI schools fall into one or both of two categories, according to the state Department of Education. They are either Title I schools that, when ranked according to their three-year CCRPI average, are among the lowest performing 5% of Title I schools in the state, or high schools with a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate less than or equal to 67%.
"Phoenix is a school of choice," and most students are there because they've fallen behind on credits, Gilreath said. Often, by the time they get to Phoenix, they are "so far behind" on academic progress that graduating in four or five years isn't realistic, which is why the school's graduation rate is below 67%.
However, most students do, eventually, achieve their degrees — more than 100 each year, in fact — and that's most critical to Gilreath, she said. "What's important to me is we get them graduated," not any arbitrary timeline, and "we want them to have that excitement."
Phoenix's 2019 graduation rate was 51%, Williams said. Considering the hardships faced by Phoenix's students — many work significant hours outside of school, for example — "that's great."