ATLANTA – Dozens of struggling schools that were once flagged for state support have since made strides.  

The state Department of Education announced this week that one-third of the 274 schools identified as “focus” or “priority” schools because achievement gaps or low student performance had shucked off those labels.   

The announcement was cause for celebration in Colquitt County, where Odom, Okapilco and Sunset elementary schools were removed from the list of “focus” schools – a category reserved for schools with the biggest gap between low academic performers and the state average.  

“Our system was strategic in focusing resources to tackle the underlying challenges facing students,” said Mary Beth Watson, the county’s school board chair. “And it is extremely gratifying to see those investments pay off.”

The lists are a requirement tied to the soon-to-be-replaced federal No Child Left Behind initiative. Once the new Every Student Succeeds Act is fully adopted, the focus and priority school lists will also be replaced. The new criteria have not yet been decided. 

The new list will help determine which schools are eligible for the state’s new school turnaround plan, now sitting on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.

Today, the lowest performing 5 percent of high-poverty schools and high schools with a graduation rate below 60 percent are considered priority. Schools with the widest achievement gaps are deemed focus schools. 

Voters soundly rejected a school-takeover plan last year that granted the governor’s office the power to seize chronically failing schools. 

This time, a chief turnaround officer would report to the state school board and deploy “coaches” to work with struggling schools. 

The progress shown by academically struggling schools was cheered across the state.

“There is no state in the country that can say, ‘Ah ha, we have absolutely solved the problem between low income kids and middle-and-upper income kids,’” said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. 

“This is very much a work in progress, and I think it is encouraging that 30 percent of the schools on the list have come off and they’re making steady progress in addressing this really challenging conundrum,” she said. 

In Colquitt County, school leaders embraced the additional resources that came with being on the list, said Marni Kirkland, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

The district turned to initiatives, such as allocating time to provide extra support to struggling students, to help narrow the gaps. 

“Improvement in the area of the achievement gap data point not only indicates that the needs of the individual students are being met appropriately through the curriculum programming,” Kirkland said. 

“But it also means teachers are constantly adding new tools and skills to their teaching toolkit that ultimately benefit all students,” she added. 

The district also has a school, Cox Elementary, that would have qualified for state takeover under the failed Opportunity School District proposal, which relied on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index to identify the at-risk schools. 

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at

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