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Clarke County School District

With over 12,000 students and 24 native languages spoken, the Clarke County School District in Athens, Georgia offers a culture of academic excellence and diversity. There are 21 total schools – 14 elementary, 4 middle and 3 high, in addition to the Athens Community Career Academy. The Career Academy is a Charter Program and collaboration between the school district, Athens Technical College, University of Georgia and OneAthens. Through dual enrollment, students earn free college credit in career pathways and in general education courses taught by college faculty. The school district is a recent recipient of the Title I Distinguished District award for the state of Georgia. This recognition was given to the number one large school district in the state for closing the gap between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

CHALLENGE

The district's graduation rate has risen significantly since 2004, from 50.3% to 70.8%. In addition, the graduation rate for subgroups has increased and the achievement gap is closing. In 2004, 35.9% of black students graduated; in 2011, 65.6% did the same. In 2004, 77.6% of white students graduated; in 2011, 81.1% did the same. Successes are also evident in state testing results, as student achievement continues to increase and gaps in subgroups continues to decrease. Even with these gains, though, Superintendent Philip D. Lanoue felt that some of the community conversation still quoted old data as if it were current. Also, Clarke County has nearly 80% of its students that receive free or reduced lunches, but people are misinformed about the achievement of the district’s economically disadvantaged students, despite 73.7% of them graduating high school in 2011 – higher than the overall district average.

SOLUTION

Through a partnership with the Junior League of Athens and Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the school district worked to share current information on student achievement in their annual "Seeing is Believing" bus tour. This event brings together groups including prospective parents, realtors, businesspeople, young professionals and interested community members. The day begins with a presentation at a high school and then participants have the opportunity to tour either a middle or high school, as well as an elementary school. After tours, the group convenes at a local church for a donated lunch and Q&A session with Superintendent Philip D. Lanoue. This half-day gives community members the opportunity to see firsthand the great work occurring in the Clarke County Schools each and every day. Participants have the opportunity to hear from and talk with students, teachers, administrators, current parents and alumni. In addition, reporters and photographers participate are in attendance which helps spread current information and accolades to the community-at-large. By seeing for themselves and being armed with current information, Lanoue has helped create a new dialogue for the Athens-Clarke County community.

RESULTS

Over the past few years, Lanoue has seen the tone of the district's coverage in the newspaper change and he believes it is in part due to the open relationship the district has developed with the media, through events such as the “Seeing is Believing” tour. The district has also strengthened their partnerships with the Junior League of Athens and Athens Area Chamber of Commerce into other areas and it continues to see those collaborations develop into new mutually beneficial areas. A survey of the 2012 tour revealed that around 60% of attendees had their perceptions changed about the school district after attending the tour, and over 90% of attendees felt the tour was effective.

LESSONS LEARNED

When opening your doors to the community, it is important to give as much of an authentic experience as possible. Certainly you want to put your best foot forward, but a "dog and pony show" is ineffective. Attendees saw mostly the positive, but some saw a few instances that were less-than-perfect – actually resulting in feedback saying that helped participants believe the tour was indeed authentic. According to Superintendent Lanoue, “Attendees felt they had a real experience, which made them more receptive to news about our awards, accolades and more. It is also important to have a good relationship with the media and be open with them. Accommodating their requests to the fullest extent possible is a way that has greatly benefited our district.”

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