Georgia Schools Superintendent Speaks at Dade Chamber Luncheon

Georgia Education Superintendent Richard Woods addresses C of C luncheon.

The arts are vital to education, Georgia Superintendent of Schools Richard Woods told Dade listeners on Friday. Music requires the brain to function at a higher level, evidenced by the statistic that 40 percent of Georgia Tech graduates have a high-school band background, he said. And the education department has also moved back to an emphasis on the fine arts, said Woods, recently hiring its first arts employee in 20 years. "If you look at the health of any civilization, you look at what fine arts are doing," he said.

Woods was speaking at the Dade Chamber of Commerce's Jan. 20 luncheon in the county Administrative Building, at which he was guest of honor. He had spent Friday morning touring county schools with Dade's own superintendent, Dr. Jan Harris, and members of the local board of education. (For photographs of that tour, please follow link below to a copy of Dr. Harris's Jan. 23 Superintendent's Message.)

Both Woods and Dr. Harris spoke at the luncheon, introduced by youthful academic luminary Bryce Nethery (right), the Dade High Schooler who made the home folks proud this fall with his selection to serve on the Georgia 2016-2017 Student Advisory Council.

Superintendent Woods, who was elected in 2014 and took over the state education department last January, praised STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives as well as agriculture education programs such as the one recently implemented at Dade High. "You will not find a sharper group of young people," he said.

But he said a major thrust in Georgia schools going forward was something more elemental: a hard focus on basic K-5 education. "That's the foundation," he said. A vital goal for 2020 is to get youngsters on the right path by third grade, said Woods.

And one of the keys in that regard is reading, stressed Woods. "My mother made sure I had books all the time," he said. "If I had to pick one skill, it's the ability to read."

But he told Chamber members that the education department is also listening to them and other business leaders these days about the importance of "soft skills"--attitudes, work ethic, communication, social graces, team spirit and other intangibles--that make for good employees.

"I have no fear of accountability," said Woods, who has gone on record as opposing undue emphasis on standardized test scores. He said that Georgia SAT scores are moving up. "Our goal by 2020 is to meet the national average," he said.

But if that sounds depressingly like striving upward toward mediocrity, Woods said that's not the case, that the top state tests only the top 2 percent of its students, skewing the average. "If we could take the top 2 percent of Georgia, Georgia would be no. 1," he said. He said Georgia's minorities already test third in the nation.

In any case, said Woods: "We are looking at more a holistic approach to education." He said that No Child Left Behind, the now largely discredited educational program that mandated accountability through testing, had "narrowed the options for our children," and that end-of-the-year testing was more in the nature of an autopsy than a teaching tool.

Woods also talked about the importance in education of coordinating with other agencies to benefit the schools. "So much is done in isolation," he said.

Woods said he was investigating paying for a nurse in every school with existing funds in a Medicaid program. "Hopefully we can announce that next month," he said.

He also urged schools to transform the way they saw the local library. Libraries, he said, are "collaborative learning centers," partners with a community's schools in educating the young.

It was Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley who mentioned the elephant in the room evoked by that one: In Dade, he pointed out, the local library had been torpedoed by the board of education, which defunded it entirely in 2012.

Historically, local funding for the library has been shared among Dade's three taxing entities, the Dade County Commission, the Trenton City Commission and the Dade Board of Education. But although the school system receives over three-quarters of every county tax dollar, former Superintendent Shawn Tobin learned there was no legal contract requiring the schools to contribute at all to the library's support, and the board of education backed him in zeroing out all funds. It was a blow that crippled the library, which laid off veteran staff and closed its doors for most of the week.

"It's getting better," said Rumley. In fact, the board of education has now restored some percentage of its former share of library funding, allowing it to open on Wednesdays. But though Tobin is now long gone, full funding has never come back and the library remains staffed by part-timers and closed on Mondays.

In other remarks, Superintendent Woods told the audience that his department has traditionally been a bureaucratic regulatory agency over the local schools. "That has to change," he said.

Henceforth, said Woods, he wanted his department to be more a resource than a boss to local school systems, not telling them what to do but asking how it can help them do their work.

Besides Executive Chairman Rumley, most of the Dade County commissioners attended the luncheon, as did almost all the school board members and officers of the C of C. State Rep. John Deffenbaugh attended as well.

The Chamber gives these luncheons once every two months, always engaging a local restaurant to cater them. Featured this month was a Mexican buffet by Los 3 Amigos.

Link to Superintendent's Message:

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