Pre-COVID, Georgia rated schools for well-being; will ratings resurface?
- Georgia is the first state in the U.S. to use school climate star ratings as part of its academic accountability system.
- School climate star ratings have helped reduce school suspension rates.
- Post-pandemic, educators seem unsure about the role of a rating system in education.
In part one of a two-part series on the state of Georgia’s School Climate Star Rating system, designed to measure a school’s environment for learning and thriving, State Affairs Senior Investigative Reporter Tammy Joyner looks at the origins of the rating system and how experts view its effectiveness.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — W.S. Hornsby Elementary School and W.S. Hornsby Middle School sit side by side, separated only by a short breezeway. Yet, the two schools couldn’t be further apart when it comes to how students, parents and teachers feel about them.
The schools illustrate both ends of the spectrum of a statewide ratings system that tracks the well-being of Georgia’s roughly 2,300 K-12 public schools. Hornsby Elementary earned five stars, the highest score in the Georgia School Climate Star Rating system, in 2019, the most recent data available. The middle school received one star, the lowest score.
While the School Climate Star Rating system is not a measure of academic achievement, it is a glimpse into whether a school is a good, safe environment for learning. And the system has received national acclaim.
Following nearly three years of a pandemic that kept children from a structured learning environment, how and will the state address — and continue to fund — this critical reporting measurement?
The answer to that question is unclear.
Experts are not in sync on what potential external and other issues make one school divided by a breezeway a one-star and the other school a five-star.
“Anytime you're trying to take [a measure of] a very human and intangible thing like school climate, it's imperfect. It’s so difficult to nail down and quantify,” said Leslie Hazle Bussey, CEO and executive director of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement in Duluth and a former Richmond County school district consultant.
Students and schools throughout Georgia and the nation are increasingly under siege in and out of the classroom. School shootings and ensuing trauma impact students, teachers, parents and administrators whether the attack is on their campus or one across the country. Complicating matters, say experts, are teacher and staff shortages, COVID-19-related fatigue and a surge in student behavioral problems.
The discipline factor
Georgia’s statewide School Climate Star Rating program is the result of a decades-old effort to cut the number of bullying incidents and out-of-school suspensions.
“Georgia had a very high out-of-school suspension rate,” said Michael Waller, executive director of Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit child advocacy group in Cobb County that works to keep kids in school. Georgia Appleseed was part of the school climate reform movement.
“We were suspending kids in record, remarkable numbers. Some [schools] 10%, 12%. Some places had 20%, even higher of kids suspended every year from school. That puts a lot of pressure on students. They're out of school, not learning and they're disengaged from school. It creates a churn in the school.”
During the 2009-2010 school year — around the time school climate reform was taking shape — about 142,000 kids, or 8.1% in K-12 statewide, received out-of-school suspensions, according to DOE records. Waller said that last year, the number of suspensions had dropped to 6.5%, or 118,000 kids.
“That’s fewer kids being suspended even though we have a larger population of school kids now,” Waller noted.
A 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that nationwide 19% of students in grades 9-12 were bullied in school in 2018. And in Georgia, bullying was so pervasive that the state mandated that all state or federally-funded schools implement anti-bullying policies. That same year, the state made bullying a misdemeanor.
“The Department of Education and the state of Georgia have a lot to crow about when it comes to school climate reform,” said Waller. “They got school climate reform into 50% of the schools at least. They made a huge dent in discipline. Schools are improving it, making it more effective, making it more supportive of kids. They’re [Georgia] a leader in the nation on school climate reform.”
Will the star system stay or go?
The School Climate Star Rating program was halted in 2020 when COVID-19 hit. It has yet to resume, and some question whether it will.
“We are currently evaluating when the star rating can be reinstated to ensure valid and reliable data,” Meghan Frick, a spokesman for the state Department of Education (DOE), told State Affairs in an email.
DOE officials may be considering revising parts of the system, according to several people familiar with it.
“School climate is sort of the essence of what makes a good school,” Caitlin Dooley, a former DOE deputy superintendent who oversaw the School Climate Star Rating, told State Affairs. Dooley left the job last December to become executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. It costs between $2 million and $3 million a year to administer the School Climate Star Rating program statewide, Dooley said. That was for personnel, she said.
The rating system is calculated using data from the Georgia Student Health Survey, Georgia School Personnel Survey, Georgia Parent Survey, student discipline data and attendance records for students, teachers, staff and administrators.
“When you walk in the building, it's that warm feeling you get. It encourages kids to come to school, and it provides the metrics for school systems to use to improve,” said Dooley, who oversaw the program from 2020-2022. “It's a foundation for learning, going to a school that is a comforting place, a school where people greet you at the door and talk to you while you're there. A school where you feel like you're safe, and you have a sense of belonging and you feel like you have a friend. Those are places where you would have the cognitive capacity to learn.”
That’s a lofty goal — and a foreign concept for some schools struggling to reach and teach children trying to survive in chaotic homes and communities.
“The climate of the community is not separate from the climate of the school when it comes to our children,” said Wayne Frazier, a former middle and high school principal now in his sixth year as a member of Augusta’s Richmond County School Board.
“We just had a fourth grader witness her daddy shooting and killing her mother. Then the police came and shot him in front of the little girl. That has become the norm in certain communities.,” said Frazier. “We get these kinds of calls on a regular basis. So they bring with them this type of trauma to the school. Behavior, academics. It impacts everything,”
Some educators, school board officials, education experts and child advocates agree, noting that the rating system doesn't tell the whole story of what’s going on inside a school.
State Affairs repeatedly reached out to state school Superintendent Richard Woods and key DOE officials over the past seven weeks for details on the program, its funding and its fate but had not received a response by the time this article was published.
Praise vs. punishment
Georgia was the first state in the country to include school climate as an early indicator in its academic accountability system. It is now one of 35 states with school climate policies. The Peach State is one of only a dozen states where the school climate system is required in all K-12 public schools, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
The majority of Georgia schools earned 3 out of 5 stars in 2019, according to the latest Georgia data available. At that time, 33 schools, including Hornsby Middle, ranked at the bottom with one star. In Richmond County, four other schools also received one star.
Overall, school climate ratings statewide were an average of four stars in 2019, unchanged from 2018 but up slightly from 2016 when the average was 3.5 stars.
Education experts and advocates credit a set of tools called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, with helping improve school climate statewide over the years. PBIS focuses on praising rather than punishing students and redirecting, when possible, a student's behavior to get a better outcome. It has been known to improve academic performance and perceptions of schools, education experts say. It also has reduced suspensions, anti-social and aggressive behavior, bullying, drug use and teacher turnover, according to the Center on PBIS.
State Affairs found fewer than 10% of the 33 schools that received a one-star rating in 2019 were using PBIS.
Garry McGiboney is widely hailed as the architect behind much of what has made the School Climate Star Rating system work in Georgia.
In 2007, the veteran educator, certified psychologist and leading expert in leadership and school behavior arrived at the state DOE.
When McGiboney arrived, only 70 of the state’s 2,300 public schools were using PBIS. By the time he left in October 2020, PBIS was being used in 1,400 Georgia schools.
“There’s different ways to improve school climate,” McGiboney, author of several books, including The Psychology of School Climate, told State Affairs. “I wanted something that was research-based. It [PBIS] was a good framework for improving climate at school.”
McGiboney is now executive director of government and education programs at Sharecare, an Atlanta-based digital health and wellness firm co-founded by WebMD founder Jeff Arnold.
“The research for several years has shown that the climate of the school is really instrumental in the safety of the school but also in the academic engagement,” said McGiboney. “Students are learning … because if they don't feel safe or secure, they don't feel connected.”
DOE research shows student attendance significantly impacts student achievement. Missing more than ten days of school a year — regardless of the cause — can affect a student’s academic performance and their attitude about school. Attendance accounts for one-fourth of the equation of what factors into school climate ratings.
The DOE study, conducted in 2011, found a substantial drop in student graduation rates as it relates to absences among eighth, ninth and 10th graders. For example, an eighth grader who missed 11 to 14 days of school had a 52.33% chance of graduating while his peer who hadn’t missed any school days had a 79% chance of graduating.
Also, schools with strong school climate ratings tend to have fewer discipline incidents overall, Appleseed executive Waller said.
“If you eliminate a bunch of discipline incidents that don’t need to be incidents at all, you can focus on the kids who need extra support and help,” Waller said. “You’re not distracted and you're not creating a negative climate of punishment for smaller incidents that really shouldn't be there at all. You also end up with higher student performance as a result; you also end up with higher teacher retention because they're happier.
“It has made a huge difference for children.”
A glimpse of the data shows mixed results. Between 2015 and 2019, schools across the state saw:
- Out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions fall.
- Assignments to alternative schools rose while school expulsions declined.
- Students’, teachers’ and parents’ perception of their schools improved.
- Physical altercations rose.
- Bullying and harassment decreased.
- Drug-related incidents more than tripled.
The School Climate Star Rating has sparked some controversy over the years. Allegations surfaced at one point that discipline data was being underreported in some schools.
State lawmakers introduced a bill in 2021 to drop discipline data from the School Climate Star Rating system. The bill passed, but without that measure, leaving discipline data intact.
There’s more than meets the eye
While the rating system provides useful data on schools and districts, it’s not the definitive measure of what’s really going on in schools, according to Bussey, who has worked with a number of Georgia’s 180 school districts statewide.
“It runs the gamut. You’re going to have high climate ratings that are pretty legit. You're going to have low climate ratings that aren't [but] you’ve got a beautiful culture where parents and students feel deeply loved and are known and are learning but for whatever reason, maybe you'd have a low parent participation rate on your surveys,” Bussey said. “Maybe you had a particular community that was really struck with COVID. So you have a lot of absences, either by students or teachers. Those things could skew everything and give you a one- or two-star climate rating but it's actually a beautiful place.
“You could have a situation where you’ve got five stars but if you and I walk into that school, we would patently feel that this is not a beautiful place for humans to grow and learn.”
Bussey commended state education department officials for collecting “data on every single school, every district, every year that's comparable.” But she said some districts, educators and even parents have become good at figuring out “what causes us to get more stars.”
“There's a way to mechanize those numbers so that they appear like it's a great climate. But when you go in there people aren’t [thriving],” Bussey said.
Improving a school's environment doesn’t happen overnight, she said, it can often take years.
“I don't think [School Climate Star Rating] in itself is a mechanism for improving schools any more than when you go to the doctor and they weigh you,” she said. “Weighing you doesn't change your health. All it tells you is something on that one day.”
Want to see how your individual school or school district performed on the last School Climate Star Rating? Find out here.
You can reach Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected]. Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for nearly 30 years.
Correction, May 5, 2023: This story has been updated to remove the length of time suspended students were reported to be out of school.
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How to be your own lawyer in Georgia (and when you shouldn’t)
In his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers, judges and others assembled for the joint legislative session about challenges the state faces in providing access to justice for Georgians.
The first is an “astounding” backlog of civil and criminal cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said will take some county and state courts years to catch up on. The second is a statewide shortage of lawyers.
Fulton County alone has 4,000 pending indicted felony cases, and 14,000 unindicted felony cases, Boggs said.
Defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, or even years. In Dougherty County, more than 200 people who’ve been charged but not convicted have been in jail for more than two years.
As for judicial access, of 159 counties in Georgia, 67 have 10 or fewer licensed practicing attorneys, and seven — all rural counties — have none at all.
Boggs said the legal workforce shortage significantly impacts civil cases such as divorces, child custody and eviction proceedings. He also noted that there is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases. “The basic right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” said Boggs.
One imperfect solution to this lack of legal representation is for people to represent themselves.
It’s not a new practice — people have done it for decades, from contract disputes in small claims courts to major felonies in superior courts. In 2021, 1.1 million people led their own cases in criminal and civil courts in Georgia.
But the outcomes aren’t always good. Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said in 2017 that self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge, are more likely to lose their cases, and tend to slow down court proceedings.
Since then, the Access to Justice Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia has led a statewide effort to create more resources to help people of low and middle incomes to represent themselves better, and to make courts more user-friendly, including an expansion of online legal resources.
Georgians can now access free legal forms based on Georgia code, related how-to videos and detailed instructions for common legal matters in family law, probate law (such as wills, guardianship and estate settlement), landlord-tenant law, advance health directives and name changes.
Most county courts have some online forms, as well as physical law libraries with printed forms and legal research materials available to the public.
Over the past five years, more than a dozen libraries around the state have expanded to become legal self-help centers staffed by paralegals or other trained personnel who can walk people through the maze of forms and explain how to complete and file a legal document properly. Nancy Long is one such legal “navigator,” working at the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center in Dougherty County in Albany. Southwest Georgia has many counties considered to be legal deserts, including four with no active, licensed lawyers.
Long, a paralegal, said many people come into the center “afraid and intimidated by the legal system, and we help them figure out the forms and the legal terms, explain what things mean, and guide them through the system.”
Recently the center helped a man who wanted to legally acknowledge his child so the child could inherit from him. The staff provided information about the legitimation process, and he successfully represented himself in court.
The Southwest Georgia center also has tech set up for people to attend court hearings remotely via Zoom, which enables many residents without internet to access the courts and legal counsel in other cities.
A Word of Caution
When it becomes clear that someone can’t handle their case themselves, either because of literacy issues or the case is too complex, Long said the staff refers people to a list of attorneys in the area, some of whom are willing to represent clients for free or at a reduced cost. One such pro bono attorney is Vicky Kimbrell, who leads the family law unit for Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit serving low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta. Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves a similar clientele within the five-county metro Atlanta area.
“Pro se” or self-representation is better suited to uncontested divorces, said Kimbrell. “It works best when you have some agreed-upon structure, and when you file the divorce, both parties can agree and sign acknowledgments. People can walk through that pretty simply.”
The website of the Judicial Council provides comprehensive legal packets for divorces with and without children, and includes eight videos that explain how to complete the complex child support calculator worksheets.
“In a disputed custody case, that’s not enough,” said Kimbrell, who also serves on the Judicial Council’s Access to Justice committee and has helped to develop self-help resources for family law cases, including uniform legal forms for divorce that are accepted in courts statewide.
“If you’ve got a couple of kids or a house, it gets really complicated. If your husband has a lawyer and you don’t, and you’re standing in court, and whether or not you get custody of your kids depends on how you can maneuver this court process, that’s a scary place to be,” she said, advising people to seek out pro bono or low bono counsel in those cases.
People who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking and who need a temporary protective order (TPO) should call one of the legal aid programs or the domestic violence hotline, said Kimbrell. “It’s pretty dangerous to file your own TPO, and these are the kinds of cases that we prioritize.”
|SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS IN GEORGIA|
|More than 1 million Georgia residents represent themselves in civil and criminal courts
each year. Here’s the breakdown of self-represented litigants in Georgia courts in 2021.
|Source: Judicial Council of Georgia|
Kimbrell noted that legal aid organizations take on clients with household incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $29,160 for an individual and $49,720 for a family of three. Cobb County Magistrate Judge Tabitha Ponder, who also serves as staff attorney for the Georgia Judicial Council’s Access to Justice Committee, advises people to “try using free legal resources first, before making a decision to represent yourself.”
She said self-represented litigants do well in small claims court, where they often face other pro se parties. But she considers them at a disadvantage when trying a case against someone who has a lawyer. That distinction is most notable in dispossessory cases, she said.
“Most landlords are represented by counsel,” she said. “And I would say 90 to 95% of the tenants are not represented. And sometimes, sitting on the bench, I see they have legal arguments they can make, and there are some things they may be entitled to, but as a judge, our hands are tied; we can’t give advice from the bench. And this is important for folks who are facing evictions because our eviction process is really quick.”
In Cobb County, tenants fending for themselves can take advantage of mediators and free legal aid attorneys who are always present in the courtroom during eviction cases.
“We’ve got a person there to speak with both parties and see if they can work out an agreement,” said Ponder. “And the [tenants] can get some sound legal advice. So that’s extremely helpful. What I’ve found with self-represented litigants is that most of the time, these folks don’t require a lawyer to represent them in person. They just need some advice and some resources to help them … it’s usually just one or two issues or questions on a form that they struggle with.”
Lawyers offering “limited scope” or “unbundled” services who are willing to take on just the part of a case that a person can’t handle for themselves can be the key to success or failure for a pro se litigant, she said. “Unbundling really works, and it’s something we need to see more support for statewide.”
Cobb County also offers a free monthly family law workshop via Zoom covering divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation. The workshop is mandatory for self-represented litigants, who can ask a family law attorney general questions via the chat, and have the option afterward to pay $100 for a 1.5-hour consultation with an attorney.
Other sources of support include:
- The Cobb Second Chance Desk helps individuals with a criminal history who may be eligible to restrict and seal their record.
- The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) helps people with record restrictions and pardons, offering free online workshops on how to clear criminal history. It also regularly runs free on-site legal clinics at law libraries and justice centers around Georgia.
- The Fulton County Probate Information Center helps Fulton residents understand how to manage a deceased family member’s estate with free 30-minute consultations with a probate attorney. The Council of Probate Court Judges is a statewide resource offering dozens of standard forms for common probate issues in Georgia, as well as how-to videos and guidance on guardianship for minors and adults.
In Macon, the Middle Georgia Justice Center serves people in Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford, Monroe, Jones, and Twiggs counties. It handles heirs’ property, probate, property, guardianship matters, divorce, legitimation, criminal history relief, as well as ID card and driver’s license issues.
The center helps people whose income is up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $43,740 for one person and $74,580 for a family of three. People apply for legal aid online or in person, and then learn if they’ll receive support to use the center’s self-help resources, direct representation by a staff attorney or a referral to a pro bono or low bono lawyer. The center has expanded from three to six full-time employees this year with more than $500,000 in funding from corporate grants, local donors and federal funds.
Ponder said the Access to Justice committee has just completed a new set of uniform landlord-tenant forms and how-to videos that should make it easier for people to represent themselves. They’ll be posted once approved by the Magistrate Court Council later this year. Their next project is legitimation forms that can be accepted in any Georgia court.
And the committee is currently working with Georgia Legal Services Program to create kiosks offering printable legal forms and instructions that will be placed in seven to 10 courthouses and self-help centers “strategically around the state, in legal deserts,” said Ponder.
“I’m a firm believer that when people have the right resources, they can have success with any kind of case,” she said.
SELF-HELP, FREE AND LOW-COST LEGAL RESOURCES IN GEORGIA
JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIA – Free forms, instructions and how-to videos on family law and landlord-tenant law and a list of Georgia’s legal self-help centers.
GEORGIA LEGAL AID – Offers dozens of free forms, guides and resources to handle legal issues.
GEORGIA LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM – Nonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta.
ATLANTA LEGAL AID SOCIETY – Nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters for low- and moderate-income people across metro Atlanta.
STATE BAR OF GEORGIA – Find an attorney. Tip: Use pricing filter to select limited scope, pro bono, fixed price, etc.
COUNCIL OF MAGISTRATE COURT JUDGES – Free forms generator guides you through questions to create free, customized forms to take to the Magistrate Court.
COUNCIL OF PROBATE JUDGES OF GEORGIA – Offers statewide standard forms and how-to videos for common probate issues, including wills, estates, and guardianship for minors and adults.
GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT – Free resources and attorneys to help people with clearing criminal records, obtaining pardons and early termination from probation.
GEORGIA COALITION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Information on finding a shelter, finding a lawyer, how to be safe in court.
24-HOUR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE IN GA – 1-800-334-2836
Calls to the hotline are automatically connected to the caller’s nearest Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified shelter.
GEORGIA SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS’ COOPERATIVE AUTHORITY – Free standard statewide forms on family violence, protective orders.
Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].
Header image: The Georgia Supreme Court (Credit: Joy Walstrum)