Innovative Education Initiative Redefines Teamwork in Carroll County
By Scotty Brewington, Contributing Writer, Marketjet LLC
As a graduate of Central High School and the University of West Georgia, both in Carroll County, Amanda Wright remembers the rivalry that used to exist between the city and county high schools. But today, as the program coordinator for the university’s office of community engagement, she sees something different: teamwork.
In a time when non-profits, schools and community leaders are often working independently in silos, Carrollton City and Carroll County Schools are coming together with a new, innovative approach focused on the single goal of helping students in their districts succeed.
The Carrollton-Carroll County Education Collaborative (CCEC) is an example of how two school districts – Carrolton City and Carroll County – have partnered with leadership from the University of West Georgia (UWG), West Georgia Technical College (WGTC), local school boards, the chamber of commerce, non-profits, the business community and community leaders to prepare students for life beyond the classroom. And they’re doing it together.
The Carrollton-Carroll County Education Collaborative
The CCEC began as part of a response to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s High Demand Career Initiative (HDCI), designed to bring Georgia’s universities and technical colleges together with the private sector to better prepare students to enter the workforce.
Born out of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Education Blue Ribbon Task Force, the CCEC is based on an integrated community response model that was created in 2014 when the presidents of UWG and WGTC, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, local school boards and non-profit community leaders came together to create a plan to help students in West Georgia succeed in K-12 and beyond.
In July 2016, the first CCEC summit was held, taking the model to the operational level.
“What we found was that there were a lot of different agencies and non-profit groups working on the same things, but they had no relationship with each other,” said Dr. John Green, an educator with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, principal, district administrator and superintendent who now serves as director of the CCEC. “Our goal was to bring everyone to the table to start working together.”
The structure of the CCEC invites the participation of a broad range of stakeholders from the business community, non-profit sector, government agencies and concerned citizens to create opportunities for students from preschool all the way to graduate programs. The goal of the collaborative is simple: work together to ensure that every child in Carroll County has the resources and opportunities to prepare them to enroll in higher education, enlist in the military, or find meaningful employment within four years of high school graduation.
Initially, the goal was to increase the number of students pursuing college or career development after high school graduation while also tracking college retention rates, dual-enrollment, and what happens during the period of time between high school and college. However, the initiative soon evolved to also include a focus on the core reasons why students are not successful, taking a closer look at how early development affects a student’s ultimate success.
“We are coming together as educational leaders and as a community to figure out how to support families so that they can support their children in those critical formative years,” said Dr. Mark Albertus, superintendent of Carrollton City Schools. “Everyone is working together to overcome some of these challenges and to give our kids the best possible chance of getting a great education, which will make this region that much stronger in years to come.”
This holistic approach to education – looking at a student’s education from birth to career – isn’t a new concept. The nation’s first P-16 council was created in Georgia by then-governor Zell Miller in 1996, designed to foster collaboration across early learning, K-12 and post-secondary institutions. The CCEC takes the state’s efforts a step further, following a P-20 model that focuses on how students in the county’s two school districts progress through the learning continuum.
The CCEC focuses on four developmental themes that follow students from birth to career and serve as catalysts for creating and sustaining community-based networks: Early Learning (birth to kindergarten), Foundations (K-8), Explorations (high school) and Independence (after graduation). Benchmarks of student success include kindergarten readiness, third grade reading level, seventh grade math performance (algebra readiness), high school graduation and whether students are enrolled, enlisted or employed within four years after high school.
An example of the community response strategy in action is the annual Eighth Grade Career Expo, which is held on the campuses of UWG and WGTC to inspire middle school students, as well as introduce them to a college campus. Over 95 percent of eighth graders from all over Carroll County – from both the public and independent school systems – participate each year.
At the Early Learning level, The Carroll County Ferst Foundation provides developmentally appropriate books for children under the age of five and early intervention speech therapy is provided through a partnership with UWG and WGTC.
At the Foundations level, the Marine Corps League provides dictionaries to third grade students across all elementary schools and STEM acceleration opportunities are offered through Georgia Youth Science and Technology Consortium summer camps. A formal tutoring program is also being developed to connect elementary and middle school students with college students majoring in education at UWG and WGTC.
“This initiative is designed to get the best thinking from everyone. Relationships are formed and problems are solved because people are able to pick up the phone and talk to each other,” said Green. “Our school districts are the flagship model for developing the concept of what it looks like when everyone is working together. We have great momentum – and we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do.”
Acceleration, Tutoring and Mentoring
An important part of the CCEC model is equipping students with the skills they need to succeed beyond high school by helping them identify their interests and strengths and create a plan for what they might like to do after graduation. This includes building relationships with community leaders, non-profits and schools to share ideas and create a community network and support system.
“The CCEC aligns with those students who have challenges and are potential dropouts to students who are looking for more dual-enrollment opportunities and everyone in between,” said Green. “We are helping students who show early signs of independence, as well as those who are having trouble gaining independence.”
The CCEC model fosters student success by strategically focusing on acceleration, tutoring and mentoring structures to support the personal development of each child. Acceleration is provided throughout the process and includes access to advanced content and challenging experiences such as summer camps, dual-enrollment courses, advanced placement classes and performing arts.
Strategic partnerships are also established within the community through groups like Communities in Schools (CIS), which has a site coordinator in all high schools and one middle school within the Carrolton-Carroll County region. These organizations help with tutoring, as well as addressing circumstances beyond a student’s personal control.
“In our model, we have a mentoring piece, for example, that connects students with community-based non-profits to help them find the mentors and resources they need,” Wright said. “This could be anything from setting a student up with a tutor to helping them find affordable eye glasses – anything they need to succeed. When we work together, rather than duplicating what each other is doing, we can have a much larger impact on these students.”
What is Unique about Carroll County?
Carroll County has 23 county school campuses (12 elementary schools, six middle schools and five high schools), two college and career academies, and four Carrollton City Schools (an elementary, middle, junior high and high school). Additionally, it is home to the University of West Georgia and West Georgia Technical College, which have both been hyper-focused on community outreach and played an integral role in getting the CCEC initiative off the ground.
The county’s tight-knit community has also played a key role.
“The people and non-profits in our community want to make a difference and want to be a part of the change,” said Wright. “We didn’t have to sell the idea very hard. Everyone is already motivated to see our students succeed and enter the workforce and they also want to see our community grow.”
In addition to the community support, the initiative also needed buy-in from the local school systems and school boards themselves.
“We all want what is best for the kids in West Georgia. Everyone sees this collaboration as a way to ensure the success of all kids in our region, which is a good thing,” said Dr. Albertus. “We have had a lot of support from the school boards and we have been able to remove obstacles quickly from our principals and teachers so that they can get us where we need to be.”
Scott Cowart, superintendent of Carroll County Schools, agrees that support from all involved parties is critical to success.
“We are very fortunate in Carroll County to have city and county school boards that recognize this opportunity and are willing to work very collaboratively to empower the leaders of the school systems to do everything they can to help every child in Carroll County,” said Cowart. “Together, we can do so much more than any single entity can do on their own.”
Quarterly CCEC meetings or “mini summits” are held and center on individual developmental themes of the model. School members, policy makers and community leaders are all invited to attend to collaborate and brainstorm ideas and highlight successes.
An annual regional summit highlights the collaborative efforts from the past year and provides an opportunity for stakeholders across the community to network and share ideas. An upcoming summit will feature a teacher institute focused on financial literacy with Kim Holder, a well-known lecturer with the University of West Georgia’s department of economics and Richards College of Business.
“Everyone is coming together to talk about developmental themes instead of just a K-12 curriculum, which is what makes this initiative unique,” said Green. “When you take this approach, then someone outside of the educational sector can also contribute. Now, you have volunteers coming in asking how they can help the schools with what they are already doing rather than relying on the schools to do it all alone.”
This countywide leadership and commitment to collaboration has created an opportunity for leaders in the schools and in the community to come together to work towards a solution that benefits everyone.
“It is the leadership and commitment from the business, education, public and private sectors that has continued to drive this effort forward. Everyone has made the commitment to do whatever it takes,” said Cowart. “We have made a commitment to a community solution and that is what sets us apart in Carroll County.”
The CCEC initiative is still in the early stages – formally launching in 2015 and becoming operational in 2017 – but school officials have already seen many positive results. Harvard University’s Pathways to Prosperity project has called the initiative one of the most innovative efforts in the country.
Both Carroll County and Carrolton City schools have seen an increase in high school graduation rates in 2017. Since the CCEC’s launch, the number of students participating in dual-enrollment courses held at local high schools offered by WGTC or on-campus courses at UWG has also significantly increased. In 2014, there were 37 students in the dual-enrollment program with the University of West Georgia. Today, there are over 700. The number of students in the dual-enrollment program at West Georgia Technical College has also increased.
By opening the lines of communication and removing scheduling and financial barriers, for example, it is now easier for high school students to participate in dual-enrollment programs.
“The CCEC began as a way for us to all communicate better and we have made it easier for students to take advantage of dual-enrollment programs by looking at the high school and college schedules and figuring out how to make it work logistically,” said Dr. Albertus. “Just getting everyone on the same page and talking to one another has done an amazing amount to get our kids ahead.”
The CCEC was designed as a guiding framework for building a collaborative, community-based strategy for preparing students that can be replicated in other communities beyond Carroll County. The concept is currently being explored by surrounding school districts in Coweta, Heard, Haralson and Douglas counties, which also have a high percentage of students who end up at the University of West Georgia and West Georgia Technical College.
“We have been very cognizant of developing a model that is customizable, but at the same time has some common agreed upon regional measures to increase the number of students who are career and college ready,” said Green. “As communities develop their own adaptation of this regional model, they will begin to build a very coordinated network of schools where people can share best practices through the lens of improving student performance.”
Can an initiative like CCEC really make a long-lasting impact? According to Wright, it already has.
“When I was in high school in Carroll County, we had a huge rivalry with the city high school. To see the collaboration and relationships the county and city schools have formed now is really mind-blowing,” said Wright.