State superintendent tours schools, touts improvements

ALBANY -- Public schools in Georgia are improving despite dwindling resources, the state's top educator told teachers and other professionals during a trip to Albany Thursday.

Despite an outlook that likely will mean fewer funds in the coming year, State School Superintendent Kathy Cox put on a brave face when speaking with teachers Thursday.

"It's not going to be easy," she said, speaking to a small group of teachers at Alice Coachman Elementary School. "We have a lot of challenges to face, but I think we can make it."

A significant challenge is a shortage of state funds, she said, which is mandating cuts in areas that educators thought lawmakers would never touch.

Cox estimates that federal stimulus dollars saved 8,000 or more school jobs throughout the state. She noted that state revenues have continued to decline, with September's numbers 18 percent lower than last year.

"When revenues are down with the state, government spending on K-12 education becomes a big target," she said to The Albany Herald editorial board Thursday. "It's been tough."

In response to budget cuts, the department has implemented furlough days, has cut cost of living raises, and whittled away local supplements, among other steps.

Despite the cuts, Cox said the department is beginning to move in the right direction.

Using Dougherty County as an example, Cox said the graduation rate has jumped to 74 percent in 2009 as graduation coaches and teachers push students to earn diplomas and enter into post-secondary facilities more prepared. Growth has also been seen in Advanced Placement classes which help students earn college credit while still enrolled in high school. In Dougherty County, 73 percent more students have enrolled in the classes, with the pass rate up more than 366 percent, she said.

"You couple those statistics with the graduation rate and you have positive movement," she said.

Statewide, the graduation rate is just under 79 percent, which is up from 63 percent in 2003.

Dr. Sally Whatley, superintendent for the Dougherty County School System, said Cox's visit to the system was both gratifying and uplifting and that it reinforces the momentum the system is gaining.

"It's an honor for our system that she has been a witness to the accomplishments of our students and our teachers," Whately said. "We have found success by providing quality education from quality people."

Cox, who said she was sad to see Whatley's retirement announcement, exalted Whatley's work to turn around a system who's graduation rate was barely in the 50 percent mark when she came to Albany.

"Under her leadership, they have been able to move mountains here," Cox said. "Sally has been a driving force for success and I'm sad to see her go."