How two Augusta schools sit on different ends of Georgia’s Climate Star Rating system
In part two of this 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 two schools in Augusta that sit right next to each other but were rated the best and worst in the School Climate Star Rating system. Read part one here.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — W.S. Hornsby Middle School recently hosted a “Books and Burgers” night, hoping to draw parents to the school. Less than two dozen came.
“We sent out flyers. We told the children, ‘Hey, [tell] your parents come to get free books. You get free hamburgers and chips. You have dinner for the night,’” Principal Stacey King told State Affairs. “Still 20 parents. What do you do?” Hornsby has nearly 400 students in grades six to eight.
Hornsby Middle School and W.S. Hornsby Elementary School are situated in one of Augusta’s toughest communities: East Augusta. Neither school has a Parent-Teacher Association.
East Augusta is a collection of mostly single-parent, working-poor households. Both schools have had their share of change. Initially, both schools started in 2007 as one school for kindergarten through eighth grade. It later split into two schools: K-3 and 4-8, which served as the middle school. The two schools became traditional elementary (K-5) and middle schools (6-8) after the last climate rating was done in 2019.
The middle school is among five of Augusta’s Richmond County schools that received one star on the state’s School Climate Star Rating metrics in 2019, the latest data available. Two of the five schools no longer exist while two others are under new leadership, including Hornsby Middle School. (Hornsby Elementary School received five stars.)
The five-star system
While the School Climate Star Rating system is not a measure of academic achievement, it does provide a glimpse into whether a school is a good, safe environment for learning.
Following nearly three years of a pandemic that kept children from a structured learning environment, the answer to whether the Department of Education will continue the rating system, which was halted in 2020 when COVID-19 hit, is unclear.
“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.
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. 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 Caitlin Dooley, who oversaw the School Climate Star Rating 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,” said Dooley, who noted that the program cost between $2 million and $3 million a year to administer statewide. The costs, she said, were largely for personnel.
The tale of two schools
This year marks Principal King’s first year as the head of W.S. Hornsby Middle School. She’s working with the elementary school next door to co-host more school activities since many families have kids at both the elementary and middle schools.
King is aware of her middle school’s 1-star climate rating and some of the factors that have resulted in the low score.
“We are working on our school climate score. I think our school climate score is a combination of maybe some mishaps just like in the community as a whole,” she said during a sitdown conversation in a conference room at the school.
Just getting students to show up for school has been one of the middle school’s biggest post-COVID challenges.
“A lot of times … what gets us [is] attendance. Our students sometimes are out of school for a while, depending on what's happening at home,” King said. “That's something we can't really control here in school. You can do all the calling, ‘Hey, mom bring them [to school],’ but when mom needs them to babysit or whatever, then they’re home,” she added.
According to the Georgia Department of Education, “Data indicate that missing more than five days of school each year, regardless of the cause, begins to impact student academic performance and starts shaping attitudes about school.”
King insists there’s healthy teacher-student interaction at the school.
“When they're in class or even during the day when they’re walking from here to there, they're quiet. They're very mannerable. They know we care about them but they also know the ones who come in who might not care so much about them,” she said. “We do a lot of counseling and mental health work. We talk to them all the time.”
Frank Scott said he's not surprised the middle school got low marks on school climate rating. Scott, a married military vet with a year-old son, is raising his nephew DeMarquez Dukes, a sixth grader at Hornsby Middle.
“That's basically because of where the school is located here in Richmond County,” the Augusta resident said. “I went to Lakeside [High School] in Columbia County. I've never been to an Augusta school. Over here is very different from what they teach in Columbia County. So having a kid in this school system is an eye-opener. It's very different from when I was going to school.
“If it wasn’t for the kids, it would be a great atmosphere,” Scott said. “The teachers do their best. Some of them go above and beyond for the students. [Although] I had one [teacher] tell me that she has a lot of kids and she just can't focus on one.”
Dukes, 13, said he likes school in general, especially math because the “teacher sits down and breaks it down for us,” but he “hates the bullying.” He said he is constantly being provoked into fighting other students at the school.
More than 56,000 fights were reported in schools across Georgia during the 2021-22 school year, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Bullying has become such a problem that the state has moved to make bullying a misdemeanor crime.
Dukes said he recently got two days of in-school suspension after a boy pushed him and he pushed him back. Not a school day goes by, the 13-year-old said, where he’s not seen students fighting or talking back to teachers. Despite the “drama,” he said he feels safe and supported in school.
The gold standard
Next door at W.S. Hornsby Elementary School, principal Gregory Shields Jr. reflects on his school’s 5-star rating.
“I wasn’t here but what I’ve noticed is one thing: behavior,” said Shields, who is in his second year as principal. “We have a great PBIS program here.”
Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (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.
At the elementary school, students participate in after-school events. Those with perfect attendance or positive behavior are regularly singled out for recognition.
“The more they are involved and recognized, it encourages them to come to school,” Shields said. “I know for sure that was definitely a positive factor in regards to school climate.”
Creating a good learning environment “takes a lot of work,” Shields said. “When our parents see that the teachers care, we do very well. We’re intentional with the support we provide our students as it relates to their health. I tell our teachers and staff all the time, ‘This is their safe place.’”
When the students are not in school, Shields said he is aware of the turmoil many of them are exposed to in the surrounding communities or in their homes.
“So when they come here, we want this to be a structured and stable environment for them.,so that when they come, they will get a good meal,” Shields said. “When they come, they will be spoken to in a manner that we want them to be raised up to speak to others. They get the opportunity to speak out and to be heard and express their feelings and things of that nature.”
The elementary school has two counselors who Shields said regularly visit classrooms and provide guidance. “They are well-versed. They’ve discussed topics like bullying and different things like that. So that helps tremendously.”
Home of the Masters, and the poor
Hornsby elementary and middle schools are about a mile from historic downtown Augusta where a statue of native son and “Godfather of Soul” James Brown is prominently featured.
Aside from being Brown’s hometown, Georgia’s third-largest city is the azalea-draped home to the prestigious Masters Golf Tournament during the first week of April when this city of over 200,000 doubles in population.
Throngs of golf fans flood the town known for its azaleas and large southern homes with grand porches. The tournament, along with a slew of festivals and the city’s picturesque River Walk, draw tens of thousands to the city each year.
Beyond the pageantry, Augusta is a place that’s been struggling to right itself for over a quarter of a century, some longtime residents say.
“Augusta seems like it never reaches its potential. We have lost our luster over the years,” Janice Allen Jackson, former city manager of Albany and former administrator of the consolidated Augusta government, said recently over lunch at Augustino’s Grill in downtown Augusta.
Born and raised in Augusta, Allen Jackson is now a consultant and host of the podcast “Local Matters.” She recently produced a multi-part series, “Are Schools Failing Our Kids? Or Are Our Kids Failing Schools?
Like many communities in Georgia and across the country, Richmond County has experienced its own version of white flight, a phenomenon that began shortly after Augusta and Richmond County consolidated its governments under a federally-approved plan in 1996.
Allen Jackson remembers people leaving the county for nearby Columbia County, a more affluent, mostly white county where the population has exploded. Others put their children in private schools or they home-school. Meanwhile, Augusta-Richmond County’s population has limped along, adding only 16,000 residents in the last 25 years.
Today, nearly 6 in 10 Richmond County residents are Black. It’s a mix of white- and blue-collar jobs: sales and office workers, service providers and professionals. Many residents work in the medical field, manufacturing plants or at the nearby Fort Gordon Army Base. Slightly more than a third — 34% — of the families in the county live below the poverty level. Half of the homes in the county are headed by women. The median household income of parents with kids in public schools is $41,903.
Three in 4 students who attend Richmond County public schools are Black.
In the last decade, the school district has spent more than $300 million building and renovating schools. More recently, the district has begun closing or consolidating schools, including Southside Elementary, another school that got a 1-star climate rating in 2019, the latest data available. It was closed because it was underused, school officials said.
Students in 54 of the district’s 57 schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. For a family of four, that means earning $55,500 before taxes.
‘We need to do work’
Like many school districts, Richmond is experiencing teacher shortages.
Since the pandemic, job openings for teachers in Richmond County have grown more than 50%. The need was so great at the beginning of this school year that 1 in 5 teachers hired by Richmond County schools got their jobs through emergency or provisional waivers, one local TV station reported.
The district currently has 300 teacher openings.
Richmond County School Superintendent Kenneth Bradshaw called the 2019 school climate rating data for his district a “broad stroke.”
“I looked at not only the five schools [that got a 1-star rating] but we also had five schools that obtained a five-star rating,” Bradshaw said. “The five schools that obtain the lower ratings means we need to do work. We need to focus on it. We need to target those schools and provide the support that's needed based on that being an indicator.”
Bradshaw said the 32,275-student district has begun focusing on PBIS.
“It really tries to capture what’s happening in the building,” Bradshaw said. “We believe that when our administrators, teachers and students become more familiar with this program, it's aligned with our code of conduct and it gets our parents and teachers involved. It will work for our school system.”
Bradshaw believes the PBIS program is a gateway to creating better relationships between students and teachers.
“The PBIS program gives us direction on how we can get to better know our students, and then begin to teach them,” he said. “Many of them come from different and various environments. It’s helpful to get to know who they are.”
As for the state’s School Star Climate Rating system?
“I’m fine with it,” Bradshaw said. “I always believe in metrics for accountability. In general, I like having some sort of metric because you always want to establish your baseline.”
Bradshaw said he “couldn’t say 100%” whether the 2019 data accurately reflected the district. “A lot of this information is based on how our students feel as they take the survey. So there are a lot of intangibles,“ he said. “But I would say that it's an indicator.”
US education system falls behind
Richmond County School Board member Wayne Frazier said the American education system hasn’t kept pace with societal changes and challenges.
Richmond schools are not educational outliers. Students and schools throughout Georgia and the nation are increasingly under siege with school shootings and higher cases of mental health, among other issues.
Educators are overwhelmed, stretched beyond their capacity and leaving the district, say school officials. Parents are work-stressed. Some students live in communities where it’s not unusual to find bodies behind school buildings or children having to duck bullets when they’re at home. Kids are acting out, bullying each other and picking fights at school, Frazier added.
“We’re behind. We’re not keeping up with the culture of the communities,” Frazier told State Affairs. “We’re teaching these children as if they’re coming in the school doors ready to learn.
“The teachers are not social workers. They are not trained at that level. They shouldn't be trained to handle this kind of stuff that comes in a classroom. So these situations play out in the classroom with misbehavior and everything else. Not interested in work. Not interested in school. The teachers and the staff are not prepared to address these types of issues when these issues are dominating the schools.
“We need more wraparound and psychological help for these children to get them prepared to learn. This is a major problem we’re having in the school that's causing the [low ratings in school] climate. These types of problems are really what's overwhelming the education environment right now and we’re not prepared to handle it.”
Churches like Greater Young Zion Baptist, which sits across from the two Hornsby schools, have stepped in to fill those needs with mentoring and meals.
“These kids really see a lot of things that kids should not be seeing,” said Rev. William B. Blount Sr. “We started a mentoring program. We're taking a lot of these kids in and trying to teach them how to dress and teach them how to conduct themselves properly. We have a curriculum-based program with the kids. Number one, ‘you got to obey your parents.’”
Crime and violence has declined in the area since a major housing project was eliminated about six years ago, Blount said. “It’s much quieter now.”
Meanwhile, school board member Frazier said rating school environments is fine if state officials plan to address the inequities found in the data.
“I don't see anything that we're doing to close the gaps, other than punishing teachers and punishing the system,” he said. “We’ve got some of the most up-to-date, technologically-advanced schools in the world. But what good is that if you’ve got broken children in the schools and [they] can’t learn?”
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.
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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)