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Many changes coming to theme schools
Stricter parent contract to be required
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Students entering Clements Theme School for the 2011-2012 school year should be prepared for lots of changes, including a new name and additional academic rigor.

The Newton County Board of Education voted unanimously to approve recommendations from Superintendent Dr. Steve Whatley on Feb. 9 that would allow for the expansion of program offerings for the school, additional personnel, changes in the eligibility to attend the school and continuation of requirements regarding discipline and academics at both Clements and Fairview Theme Schools.

The name will be changed from Clements Theme School to Clements Preparatory Academy and new academic requirements will be put in place. Students entering the first grade must have exceeded or progressed toward meeting the standards in Georgia Performance Standards.

Students entering second through fourth grade must have marks of two or three in all areas of progress reports and on report cards earned an S or P in areas where S, P or N are recorded. Fifth through eighth grade students must have an 80 or above average in all subjects and have earned an S or P on report cards. Kindergarten students will not have any academic requirements. All students must have passed the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in reading, English, language arts and math.

In order for the students to be admitted, they must also have no out-of-school suspensions and no more than two discipline referrals that resulted in detention or in-school suspension. The parent contract will also be revised so that it is clear and more specific about the roles parents are expected to play in their child’s education.

The curricular offerings at the schools will also be enhanced; foreign language teachers will be hired as well as an art teacher for Clements. Consideration will be given to hiring an instructional coach for mathematics and technology, and "Junior Great Books" will be purchased and staff trained on the use of them. Two interdisciplinary projects (one each semester) will be required and the fifth grade schedule will be altered to include an additional connections class (such as music, band, technology, art etc) . Parent volunteer hours will be tracked as well.

Rising fourth-graders will be allowed to remain at Fairview and rising fifth-graders will be allowed to remain at Clements for the 2011-2012 school year only. Cap enrollment would be enforced as well. Kindergarten would cap at 100 students, first at 154 students, second and third at 110 students, fourth and fifth at 108 students and sixth through eighth at 140 students. Siblings of enrolled students would be given first priority into kindergarten.

Additionally, a gifted endorsement cohort program would be implemented for the staff at both schools which would allow educators to learn about the latest research regarding content knowledge and instructional strategies to teach students and periodic surveys would be given to gauge the performance of the schools in terms of customer service.

All of the recommendations came following several months worth of meetings and research in order to enhance the programs offered at both parental involvement theme schools.

Numbers at both schools have declined in the last year. At Fairview, student enrollment was at 970 in February of 2009, but had dropped to 437 by February of 2010. One more student had left the school since the first of this year.

Similarly, at Clements, there were 715 students in February 2009, but by the same time in 2010 there were 350 students at the school. Between January and February 2010 10 students left the school. It is unclear if the decline in enrollment is based on students moving out of the district or if the lack of parental involvement caused them to be removed from the schools.

As with the implementation of any new program, there are going to be challenges. I think one of challenges Clements has faced is honoring the contract that parents signed," Bates said. "At the end of the semester, there were parents that had not completed the required hours and some students were reassigned to their home schools. This accounts for some of the decrease, but certainly not all of it. I think that while Clements held to the number of volunteer hours, they have not adhered to other requirements in the contract, specifically behavior.

"The language in the 2010-2011 contract and the application requirements related to behavior seem to be more specific and hopefully this will help next year," continued Bates. "Parents have also raised questions about increasing the rigor. In recent public forums parents argued both sides, some saying they were pleased and some saying that they were not. The department of curriculum and instruction will hopefully use this feedback to continue to make improvements. The system should use the challenges presented this year to strengthen the program ultimately looking for ways to engage students in the learning process and to improve the home-school relationship."

Several board members had questions regarding the theme schools and the impending changes.

"At what point in time do we say you can’t attend this school if they [parents] don’t do the [volunteer] hours?" questioned board member Almond Turner. "I just feel that it shouldn’t be done in the middle of the school year… It’s not fair to the student if they are doing a good job to move a child because of parent involvement."

Board member Johnny Smith had a different view of the situation, saying, "I feel like if they’re not going to make it mid-year, then they’re not going to make it by the end of the year," he said. "I’ll just go ahead and tell you how I feel about it. It’s called commitment."

Board member Dr. C.C. Bates agreed with Smith, "Part of the recruitment is making sure we’re clear with the parents," she said. "I think that’s been one of our biggest downfalls this year is that those things were not communicated clearly. In defense, this is a brand new project and with any brand-new project there’s going to be bumps. I think as long as we’re learning from those bumps and we’re fixing them and moving forward, I think we’re doing the best we can."

Smith also questioned if a required average of 80 was low if they were hoping to increase rigor. Although it is a B average, Smith said he though it should be higher.

"I think a B is a fair mark," said Turner. "Sometimes we can set the bar too high…"

Smith also voiced concern that if a students average sank below an 80, that student would be allowed to continue at the theme school until the following school year.

"I think that if we could say all of our students were making A’s and B’s I would rest easier at night," said Bates. She also said that students are more likely to be successful with parental support.

"They’re also more successful when more is expected of them," added Smith.

"And that’s another part of rigor," interjected Whatley. "It’s [80 average] something to get them in the door. It’s kind of like HOPE for high school seniors… We have to have the rigor when they get there and support, but that gets them in the door."

The board unanimously approved the recommendations, with the assurance that policies and problem areas would be addressed before the start of the next school year.