Arts & CultureKiddie Dope

Behind-the-Scenes Changes at Clarke County Schools

By the time this column hits the press, our Clarke County students will be packing backpacks and boarding buses for the start of a new school year.

This year brings some changes to the school district, but mainly in behind-the-scenes ways. The district, as it prepares to make its case to the state to become a charter district, is adjusting what it calls its “focus areas.” In the past, the district focused on subject areas—language arts, math, science and social studies—while this year, it trots out five new focus areas that instead focus on learning environments and broader concepts.

What does this mean? Well, in general, it shifts the focus from the subjects to the needs of the student. In a letter to teachers and staff, Superintendent Phil Lanoue mapped out the five new focus areas:

• Develop a “collaborative” planning model for student achievement that reflects the qualities of each school, rather than following a district-wide model.

• Use more technology for lessons (more on this in a minute).

• Create personalized support systems for students, especially certain groups who struggle with attendance, transiency or academics in certain areas.

• Encourage student creativity/interests.

• Develop positive learning environments to support a student’s emotional development and physical well-being.

It’s interesting to note that this set of focus areas moves away from strictly academics, and instead promotes a more holistic approach to education. It’s further proof that the “war on poverty” that once took place among nonprofits and government initiatives is now firmly rooted in our schools. I can’t say I disagree with this—if we’re to help lift families out of poverty, education is at the top of the list of needs, so by helping our kids get a shot at a great education, we can help entire families.

But we as a community need to understand that this is the war our schools are fighting—and we need to back them up. In fact, if I could go a step further, I’d argue that Athens-Clarke County has a great model set up for how nonprofits and the school district work together, with counselors and other school support staff coordinating with nonprofits to help families while working specifically to keep kids in school.

But removing myself from the soapbox from a minute, let’s talk about the technology part of these focus areas. This year, every student in grades 3–10 will be given some kind of “digital device”—a laptop or a tablet, for example. Last year’s foray into this was overwhelmingly positive. Students took care of their laptops, and the main lesson learned was that kids can be hard on their stuff, but they respect their devices and are proud of the chance to be responsible for something. Other than getting a more durable kind of laptop, the initiative remains, and that means that all our kids will be learning to research topics and understand a keyboard a lot sooner than I ever did. (I’ll always remember that keyboarding class in seventh grade, and how innovative it was for being called “keyboarding.”)

The school district also will be rolling out its new app in the coming weeks (for iPhone and Android), which will allow parents to communicate better with teachers. The app has a calendar with school events, contact information for teachers and administrators, a portal for the latest news from the district and alerts for weather and other emergencies. Based on my own experience, this is something that teachers have wanted for a couple years—there are several third-party systems out there, but nothing cohesive across the district—so this will be a significant upgrade.

So, buy some extra boxes of tissues for the inevitable colds, and get ready to power up for learning. I’m interested to see how this new plan translates into what’s going on in the classroom, and how we, as a community, can get involved even more with our schools.