Lucius Seneca said, "If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." I was thinking about Lucius this past year when I directed my cabinet to outline their departmental goals, strategies and action plans and keep me informed of our progress in meeting our goals. When sailing into the unfavorable winds of misinformation, it is most important to know where it is you want to go and to have a plan to get there. A part of my work with our Board of Education has been the development of a district-wide plan based on the goals and objectives of the executive cabinet.
We are at a critical time in the history of our school district. We are overcoming challenges and sailing stormy waters, but our focus continues to be the academic progress and achievement of each of our 16,000 students. To that end, I am thankful for our curriculum leadership and our teachers who have invested their time, this summer, becoming familiar with and preparing to align our teaching with the new Georgia Performance Common Core Curriculum.
Our transition to new levels of accountability from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) offers us direction for improvement. We have made some significant gains that have not been widely publicized. On CRCT tests last year, our students improved in 21 of 30 subject areas from third to eighth grades and, yes, we are focusing on those areas where we didn't achieve that improvement.
One of the leading measures for high school performance is the graduation rate. It has been publicized that our district graduation rate last year was 54.12 percent (2011 graduates). This figure was computed using a new method called the cohort rate that does not include summer school and fifth-year graduates or transferring students that are not accounted for. The statistical trend is much better than this number suggests. The rate for last year computed with the method accepted for the last 10 years (proxy rate) is 76.7 percent (2011 graduates). That rate reflects a trend of improvement from the 2009 rate of 75.4 percent and 2008 rate of 63.3 percent. In 2001, when NCLB was passed, the rate was just over 50 percent. Over 10 years, the graduation rate improved more than 26 percent.
Our high school students are also being challenged by the change of accountability measures. In recent years these students did not take the End-Of-Course-Tests (EOCTs) seriously because they were not a requirement for graduation. This knowledge was reflected in this year's test scores. We need our whole community to help us stress the importance of EOCTs to our high school students. They are very high in relevance to our meeting our performance index standards and they are a part of the new state graduation requirements.
In the midst of our school accountability measure adjustments we have faced economic disaster ($14 million reduction in general operating budget), CRCT investigation integrity concerns, free and reduced-cost meal program application procedure audits and, most recently, challenges to procedural handling of federal funds.
I feel compelled to comment that I do not allow, condone or support cheating in any form and the results of the CRCT investigation appears to provide us evidence of cheating on a much smaller scale than has been reported or perceived. As of Aug. 1, the attorneys have recommended the board re-hire 10 of the 49 employees named by the Governor's Special Investigation Team. Evidence against another four teachers who have appeared at tribunal hearings does not suggest they were a part of a conspiracy of cheating.
We have complied with requests from the state for additional information regarding the monitoring of free and reduced-cost meal applications and are bound by federal law to not audit a percentage of recipients greater or less than a 3 percent sample. However, we are using valuable human and technology resources to comply with a state request to build a data base that can audit all employees of the system who have children receiving free or reduced-cost lunch. I question the ethics of singling out these families for scrutiny that is greater than the general population of those who benefit from the program.
We are also working with the Georgia Department of Education federal programs staff to answer requests for information about contracts for services. These items did appear and were described in our program budget presented to our board of education in February. This scrutiny is about following procedure. I believe our federal programs director is among the most conscientious, intelligent and professional to be found in our state and believe she followed the procedure she understood to be in place.
With these ominous challenges hanging like dark clouds on the horizon, we still anticipate that our peers from around the country who will visit our district in September for the purpose of renewing our accreditation through Advanc-ED will find there is much to celebrate within our school district. We are improving achievement among our students and our goal is to help each and every student. Accreditation is really an on-going continuous improvement process that we welcome to our district.
Having shared my comments about our biggest challenges, let me now turn back to our direction for success -- what I like to call the art of possibilities available to the Dougherty County School System.
If you believe in the future of our community as contained in the hearts and minds of our children (as I do), and if you believe in teachers as the most giving of professionals who want success for those children more than money or fame (as I do), and if you believe in Dougherty County as a home of historic significance, natural beauty, caring human capital, high-quality leadership, and a spirit of renewal (as I do), then I ask you to continue this voyage through stormy seas to the brighter future of cooperation, collaboration, improvement, achievement with me.
I challenge parents to raise their involvement level with the education of children.
I challenge churches and civic organizations to hold the hands of these young people as they cross the road to adulthood.
I challenge businesses to give of their knowledge and their success to the children who are our future.
Finally, I challenge our students to take charge of their future by focusing, today, on the best preparation they can receive through diligent attention to their education.
Please join me as we seek to make tomorrow much better than today. It will benefit all of us.
Dr. Joshua W. Murfree Jr. is the 14th superintendent of schools in Dougherty County, appointed in June 2010. He says his desires are to improve community collaborative efforts and parental involvement that lead to a reduction in dropouts and improvement in promotion and performance for students. He says his objectives are to address national concerns of improving graduation rates; assuring students graduate to viable jobs, the military or college educational options, and that he voices and directs a new focus on career pathways to give students a clear direction to productive adulthood.