When a number doesn’t reflect your accomplishments

Humans love rankings. We want the teams we cheer for to be Number 1, our hometown the cleanest, our grilled cheese the cheesiest. Americans certify BBQ and chili contest judges so we can be confident who makes the best in any contest. Rankings may demonstrate things that can be measured with known metrics, but some may have so many variables that the numbers assigned don’t begin to capture the true worth of what is being ranked.

Recently U.S. News and World Report released a ranking of high schools. The top ranked schools naturally heralded their place at the top of the list, and for good reason. They have surely set and met high educational goals for their students that should be reflected in a scoring system.

The top 10 public high schools in Georgia are located in urban areas; only three are outside the Atlanta area. That really shouldn’t be surprising- urban communities have more money, more resources, and more means to attract the most sought-after teachers.

Those schools who don’t sort out at the top of the list shouldn’t be overlooked for what they provide for their students, families, and communities. The one that my daughters, their husbands, my husband and his brothers attended, Washington County High School in Sandersville, ranks 328th out of the 426 public schools in Georgia, according to the magazine. The school’s students and teachers are more accomplished than the ranking indicates.

What factors could contribute to WaCo’s (as locals often call it in football chants) landing in the bottom portion of the list? Does having 78 percent of the student body classified as economically disadvantaged pose challenges? Sure. A low income home might mean there is no home computer, internet access, or transportation to the local library to complete homework or use the computers available there. These students may be working to help support their family, leaving less time for schoolwork. Many may miss meals when not at school, and hunger impacts the ability to learn. The local food bank makes every effort to provide easy-to-manage foods for students when they are home, but the need is great when families struggle.

The U.S. News and World Report ranking data report 867 students enrolled in 9th-12th grades at the public school. The private school in town, Brentwood School, founded in 1969, where tuition this school year for one high school student is over $7,500, has 100 students in grades 9-12. While smaller classes can have benefits, being in a large economically, racially, and culturally diverse school setting has benefits inside and beyond the classroom.

The differences between the two school options are stark. But those differences don’t mean the students at Washington County High School lack ambition, talent, or success. Last spring more than 50 percent of the 214 students graduating from Washington County High School received their diploma having earned a grade point average of 91.5 or higher. School Board Chair Chris Hutchings said, “The Washington County School District is proud of its accomplishments in educating the students of our community. Our graduation rate is nearly 10 points higher than the Georgia average at 93%. Dual enrollment is up. Nine of the 214 students in the 2021 graduating class received Associate Degrees, and 12 had been accepted into the military upon graduation. Twenty had already received scholarships among the 86 that had been accepted into college.”

Behind every one of those high school diplomas presented in May are success stories past and future. The Washington County High School Class of 2021 follows some  exceptionally talented graduates including:

      • 2021 Olympic Gold Medalist
      • Four-time Emmy Award winner
      • Award winning playwright
      • Medical and industrial research scientists
      • Television news producers and journalists
      • Doctors, lawyers, accountants
      • WNBA and NFL players
      • National Guard and armed forces volunteers
      • Business owners
      • Faith leaders
      • Elected officials
      • Leaders in civic and nonprofit organizations
      • Teachers, counselors, school administrators

The rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report are a snapshot of what schools can and do accomplish. Being in the bottom portion of the rankings doesn’t make any student  in Washington County less intelligent or capable, nor any teacher less able to inspire or improvise to help a student succeed. The ranking is just one ranking.

 

A survey is only as good as the controls it sets

Lunches have been packed, sleep routines reset, and spelling words called out since students returned to classrooms across Georgia. Now parents, teachers, and students are reviewing progress reports and sizing up what happens during the next half of the grading period.

This point in the school year also gives school leaders an opportunity to review what is working and what might need to be adjusted. During a pandemic, the ability for schools to pivot on a pinhead may be the difference between lives saved and lost.

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 9, 2021, Washington County Public Schools sent out a survey using a Google platform tool asking for feedback from the school community. The survey tool is one I have used as both an executive director and board president of nonprofits.

The school system’s email with the link to the survey was sent to me by parents in the community. The form didn’t ask for any identifying information: no name, email, address, phone number. It did ask if the person responding is a school employee. It could be filled out by anyone anywhere  who had the link. I filled it out and submitted it. Twice.

Friday morning when I returned to the link it said I had already submitted my answer. Fair enough. After poking around with it some during the second of many cups of coffee, I got this:

Washington County Public Schools survey
September 10, 2021

The survey showed my email address, but Google’s software told me it wasn’t collecting anything from my account.

This isn’t the first time the schools have sent out a survey without parameters set on who could fill out the survey, or requiring any identifying information, in order to submit the survey. Last school year I picked up the phone and ended up talking with Dr. Rickey Edmond, who assured me that they were able to collect identifying data even though none was require to submit answers. I told him having seen the backside of these surveys via my Google business account, I’d sure like to know how they were managing that, because it might help me in the future. All I got was, “We can.”

With the broad questions asked in last week’s survey, what can Dr. Edmond  the Board of Education, and school principals really take away beyond how smooth car pick up and drop off are, and general satisfaction with instruction? Is a blind survey the only way for school leaders to know how parents and employees gauge the school year to date? How confident can school leaders, parents, teachers, and students be that the survey sent out on Thursday has the controls and parameters to collect accurate information?

It will be interesting to see what Dr. Edmond and the Board of Education members share with the community. Based on recent inquiries by myself and others concerned about the system’s Covid-19 record-keeping and reporting, my confidence in the quality of information collected and shared by the school system is low. Will the results of a survey available to anyone with email be used to guide judgement impacting not only the education of every student, but the health of the entire Washington County community?

I love a good Open Records Act request

With the return to classrooms across Georgia, I have been following the Covid-19 numbers in public schools in our state. Dismissing the recommended guidelines of the CDC, and the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, many superintendents and school boards are playing doctor with the health of their own communities. The outcome, with Georgia’s schools back in session for about a month, has resulted in schools opting to be online only, delaying the start of school, pausing all instruction after beginning the school year, and students, teachers, bus drivers, and bus monitors, dying of Covid-19.

Concerned families, school communities, medical providers, and epidemiologists wait on a weekly Friday report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) for Covid-19 cases and trends in their county. Friday afternoon is also when most school systems release their Covid-19 information to their community. Some school leaders choose full transparency and share all the data they send to DPH for its weekly report. Their communities know the number of confirmed cases, how many people are quarantined, and clusters in each school.* Other schools provide a scant report that often leaves community members in the dark while confirmed cases continue to break records in Georgia.

This data is supposed to help school leaders decide how safe, and effective, it is to keep students in classrooms. Some schools have opted for virtual and printed materials for entire grades, entire schools, or the whole system as a result of data and historic trends.

On Thursday, August 27th, during what Washington County’s school superintendent described as a “fireside chat,” Dr. Rickey Edmond told almost 100 people attending the online event that only confirmed cases matter. He dismissed the number of students and staff quarantined as”fluid.” I agree that number could be considered fluid, because it can change every day. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases can also change every day. DPH has already elevated Washington County schools to “substantial spread” and “increasing” in its weekly report.

Washington County, GA (map source Wikipedia)

With the state ratcheting up the level of concern for everyone in Washington County’s public schools, and having looked at reports posted by other systems across Georgia, I wondered exactly what DPH requires for its weekly school report. Seeing the reporting form was the best way to know.

A friend once told me, “I love a good Open Records Act request.” Like them,  I also love a good Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request. On Monday, August 30th, I sent one to the Dr. Edmond, copying the Washington County Board of Education members. My request was, “The information I am requesting is for the information used for the Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021. I am requesting the Covid-19 reports and/or data Washington County public schools sent to the Georgia Department of Public Health for its weekly school report.” That’s a pretty straightforward request because DPH requires it, the school is supposed to compile and send it, so releasing all of it doesn’t require extra work.

What I got back from Edmond was,  “Reasonable access provided with good faith:
1. In response to your request: Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021 is attached in a PDF Table.
2. We can’t provide you with “COVID-19 Reports and/or data sent to Georgia Department of Public Health because that information is submitted via electronic portal and the medical form used falls under 50-18-72(a). As a school entity, we must uphold HIPPA, FERPA, and privacy requirements.
3. We have provided you with additional information complied by DPH for your reference.”

Covid-19 data from Dr. Rickey Edmond, Superintendent, Washington County Public Schools, Sept 2, 2021, in response to GORA request

A complete and thorough GORA response should always be done “in good faith,” to use Dr. Edmond’s choice of words. The information sent to me isn’t what I asked for, and doesn’t comply with the GORA request. Dr. Edmond insisted that what they send has lots of confidential information in it. I asked that he redact any sensitive information and send me the form so I could see what the state requires for its weekly report on schools in our state. Additionally, saying that the form is completed online and cannot be released otherwise just doesn’t hold water in a school system with an IT department and virtual teaching capacity. Do they not save a copy of what they submit?

At this point, I was even more concerned about what the school system didn’t want to freely provide to the community. Case numbers matter, but so do the number of students and staff out for quarantine, and the number of clusters occurring in school settings. It is possible a school could have a low case load but a very high number of absences due to quarantine, resulting in dwindling classroom numbers.

What are they reporting that they aren’t telling us, and why is it so important to keep that information from us? As North Central Health District Director Michael Hokanson told me on the afternoon of August 27th, the reporting from schools relies on a good faith effort on the schools’ part.

If schools are sloppy with the parameters for collecting data, the data can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted. If a school system isn’t carefully tracking why students are absent, for example a dental appointment, strep throat, or a death in the family, what you get at the end of the day is a number that tells you nothing about why those students were out of school. Kids and staff out due to quarantine are going to miss a significant number of consecutive school days. That impacts how they are learning, how teachers must adjust, demand for substitutes, and ultimately, if a system should use online resources to keep students up to speed, and everyone healthy.

Edmond told me to contact DPH to get the form that I ask for in my GORA request. Trying to find the right person at DPH, and actually reach them, is a circle of Hell Dante didn’t know about centuries ago. The staffers I did reach are frustrated and exhausted with how their agency is combatting Covid-19. One told me, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

I left messages at schools, emailed schools, and filled out GORA requests via forms school boards provided on their web sites. One school superintendent called me back eager to share blank copies of the weekly form schools send to DPH  and volunteered to send the detailed form required for the district health office. I got the form from more than one system to verify I had the right one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the report requires is the result of counting cases, quarantining of students and staff, and clusters.* This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to record on a daily basis and add up at the end of the week. The Georgia Department of Education created a video to guide school administrators on how to easily complete the form, using “Careful Recordkeeper” as the name of the school staffer filling it out. There is no sensitive or confidential data about anyone at the school required to complete this weekly report.

Dr. Nancy Kreiger at the Harvard School of Public Health recently said, “The answer to having not-good-enough data is to make it really public that it’s not good enough and to figure out, how do you make it better?” Kreiger went on to say about data, “You need good data to do proper planning, to understand what the risk is, how the risk is changing. And you need that to be real data that are publicly available and accessible.”

If a school isn’t committed to collecting accurate data, none of what they report can and should be trusted with full confidence by the state, or the people concerned about the health of every person in that school.

The responsibility of collecting good data falls on the Board of Education requiring it, and the schools led by Dr. Edmond following through.  Thousands of families in Washington County are making life and death decisions for their children and themselves during this pandemic.  For the Board of Education, Dr. Edmond, and school leaders to be satisfied with a refusal to collect good data and share it with families is not only a disservice to Washington County families. It shows a huge distain for the exhausted healthcare providers and DPH staffers working in the county and across our state.

*From GA DPH, “Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in two or more people [students or staff] with symptom onset/collection dates within a 14 day period who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing”).

Rural and Progressive

Disclaimer: Rural and Progressive is a self-published website. Any contributions supporting the research, web platform, or other work required for the owner and any invited guest contributors, is not tax deductible. Rural and Progressive is not operating as a nonprofit entity.