Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee saw a little girl come into the office at the Pre-K Center last week.
She was leaning back on a beanbag chair, and Lee asked, “What are you doing here?”
She answered, “I was bad,” Lee said, relating the story Thursday during the Progress Through People luncheon at Connection Church.
“Oh, I don’t believe that. You couldn’t be bad,” Lee replied, even though she said it was a possibility given that the girl’s ponytail had come loose. “Come over here and let Dr. Lee twist it back up and make you pretty.”
The little girl went over to the superintendent.
“Are the teachers nice?” Lee asked.
The child answered yes.
“Are the other boys and girls nice?”
She again answered yes.
“Will you promise me that you’ll be nice and stop kicking and hitting?”
The girl answered, “I will. Thank you for doing my hair. Do you have any candy?”
Lee told her that she didn’t have any candy, but that she will be back soon and will look for her. And if she’s a good girl, Lee said, she’ll get some candy.
The Progress Through People luncheon, hosted by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce, featured Lee as the guest speaker to talk about the state of the school system.
“You see, the main idea is to focus on student learning and their overall development,” she said. “All she needed was a little stroke this morning, and she was ready to go back to class. We’re going to meet our kids where they are. My expectation is that we’re going to love them as if they’re ours, and they will want to do (good) because they feel that we genuinely care about them.”
Lee touched on a number of topics, such as the district’s successes, the state approval of the charter-system application, continued initiatives, partnerships with universities, balancing the budget and grants.
A sigh of relief
Lee said the dust was finally settling after a time of ongoing upheaval for the teachers. There was a new evaluation system in place that, she described, hit teachers really hard. She said there’s “nothing majorly new” in the district this year and that some teachers have breathed a sigh of relief, while others are still holding their breath.
Horizons Learning Experience
The Horizons Learning Experience, and alternative-education complex, opened this school year. Lee said Horizons houses students who have had chronic discipline problems in a regular classroom. At Horizons, these students will have a chance to work in group session, to build self-esteem and modify behaviors.
“Additionally, we have a number of young people who need to recover some credits that they didn’t get along the way,” Lee said. “And then there are those who have advanced themselves very quickly, and they only need one or two classes and they’re ready to graduate in December. So we’ve opened up a somewhat open campus, or virtual campus, under the same umbrella, and they’re in the same complex.”
District schools are measured by Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI. Lee said district students continue to surpass the state average. CCRPI results show the state average was 72, and Liberty’s was 77.1, on a 100-point scale. The state graduation rate last year was 72.5 percent, and the district surpassed that with 75.8 percent. For student growth percentiles, Lee said district students are either meeting or exceeding state percentiles in 15 of the 18 categories.
Lee was happy to inform the audience that Snelson-Golden and Lewis Frasier middle school were no longer on the Georgia Department of Education’s list of Focus Schools. Focus Schools are Title I schools — which receive federal money for having high concentrations of students living in poverty — and have large “achievement gaps” between their lowest- and highest-performing student subgroups. Subgroups include different racial groups, students with disabilities and those whose native language is not English.
“There are two neighboring counties that people always talk about when they get ready to come to the coastal region,” Lee said, not naming those counties. “We’re beating them by leaps and bounds, and additionally, they have schools on the Focus and Priority lists, and Liberty County School System no longer does.”
She also recognized Button Gwinnett Elementary School for being named a Highest-Performing Reward School, which is a Title I school that has the highest performance over several years for all students and student subgroups based on state tests.
Capturing Kids’ Hearts
Capturing Kids’ Hearts, an initiative that focuses on respecting others in an education environment and building a sense of family, was launched at Snelson-Golden, Liberty County High School and Bradwell Institute. Lee visited Bradwell and talked with Principal Scott Carrier about the first day of school.
“He said, ‘Dr. Lee, I’m sure it’s not my imagination, but I can tell you right now there’s already an amazing difference in the way staff is relating to students and how students are relating to staff and to each other,’” Lee said. “That’s what we want. We don’t want a whole lot of discord and disharmony.”
School-governance teams, which Lee likened to miniature boards of education for each school, have been chosen and are in the process of being trained as part of the district’s transition to becoming a charter system. Lee said that a lot of what is done at the central office will be decentralized and given to the schools. Principals will undergo training.
STEM, an education acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has been a major initiative at some schools. Lee said these schools will incorporate the arts more — something that those in education circles nationally refer to as “STEAM,” with the “a” standing for “arts.” She recognized that not all students excel in core content areas but are talented in the creative arts. The district will look into using the Performing Arts Center for student plays and community involvement.