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Education

    UPDATED Tuesday with comment from Gov. Brian Kemp: To fill a vacancy on the State Charter Schools Commission, Gov. Brian Kemp has nominated former state senator Hunter Hill, who had a secondary role in the downfall of chief Kemp rival Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle during the 2018 Republican contest for governor. Hill was also a candidate for governor. In a letter to the state Board of Education dated June 3, Kemp nominates Hill, who works for a wealth management firm, or Lisa Durden, who is director of appointments and business regulation in his office, for an open seat on the Charter Schools Commission. (The law requires the governor offer at least two nominees for each appointment.) In a statement, Kemp said, “Hunter has long been a leader in advocating for parents and students to have better educational outcomes. His work in the state Senate paved the way for greater innovation and choice in the classroom and I look forward to the work Hunter will do on the Charter School Commission to put Georgia students first.” Approved in 2012 through statewide referendum, the Charter Schools Commission has the power to approve charter schools, even over the objections of local districts. A similar commission had been in place since 2008 but the state Supreme Court declared it illegal in 2011. That led to a Republican-crafted amendment to the Georgia constitution re-creating a state-appointed commission to approve and fund charter schools. Cagle wanted to ward off a donation to Hill by the pro school choice Walton Family Foundation by enhancing his own reputation as a choice ally. As the AJC reported, Cagle met with then Senate Education and Youth Committee Chair Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, about House Bill 787, which would raise charter school funding for the 20 charter schools approved by the Charter Schools Commission.  Tippins opposed the bill, explaining to the AJC that under the current state formula, funding for those state-authorized, brick-and-mortar charter schools stands at $8,415 per pupil, which was more than the combined state and local spending per student in 46 of 180 Georgia public school districts. Including Gwinnett, HB 787 would increase the per-pupil spending to $8,816, which was more than the combined state and local spending per student in 96 Georgia school districts. Tippins did not think that was fair, pointing out that to spend the equivalent on all other public schools in Georgia would run to more than $500 million a year.  The AJC reported:  'Well, I've got to have the bill,' Tippins quoted the lieutenant governor as saying. Tippins described what came next: 'He said, 'Look, this is the deal.' He said, 'I've got to do something for charter schools.' He said, 'The Walton Family Foundation is fixing to put $2 million in Hunter Hill's campaign. And he said, 'If this bill passes, I'll get it in mine.' He didn't go into any details, but that was my understanding.' A secret recording by Tippins’ nephew captured Cagle admitting the bill was bad public policy. The recording was made by Clay Tippins, who came in fourth place in the Republican primary for governor. As the AJC reported:  Cagle told Clay Tippins in the recording that he circumvented the state Senate’s top education leader and swallowed his own misgivings over the bill, which raised the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships to $100 million, purely to prevent Hunter Hill from receiving financial help from a super PAC. “They wanted that $100 million SSO,” Cagle told Tippins in the recording, referring to the abbreviation for the tax credit program, Student Scholarship Organizations. “And, you know, I was the only guy standing in the way. Is it bad public policy? Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways.”    
  • Tracey Nance Pendley, a fourth-grade teacher at Burgess Peterson Academy in Atlanta Public Schools, earned the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year award tonight. “Tracey’s Georgia Teacher of the Year recognition speaks to her love and passion for our students and for teaching and to the tremendous impact she is having on our students’ lives and on their future,” said APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. “This is an incredible honor for Tracey and for APS as it’s the first time in nearly four decades that one of our teachers has won this award. We are so proud of Tracey for being a shining example of what teaching excellence is and should be, and we are grateful to her for being a part of our APS family.”  Pendley is the current holder of APS’ Excellence in Teaching Award,  which highlights the district’s best, brightest and most accomplished classroom educators. She is also the recipient of the 2018 Atlanta Families Award for Excellence in Education.  According to the state Department of Education: Pendley graduated from Furman University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion and completed a master’s in teaching in 2009 through the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program. She has been a classroom teacher in Atlanta Public Schools since 2012; prior to that, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools.  “Tracey Pendley was a child who benefited deeply and irreversibly from her own education, and she chose to pay that forward to her own students,” said Georgia Superintendent  Richard Woods. “The passion and joy she brings to her classroom are inspiring, and her focus is right where it belongs: on the relationships with students that serve as the foundation of all meaningful learning, development, and growth. I am honored to name her the 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year.” As a child, Pendley found hope in her education, and describes her own life as “the story of the impact that great Georgia educators have on students.”  “As I attended nine different schools and managed the uncertainties of life with a single parent who was an addict, my teachers provided the stability and encouragement that my twin brother and I needed,” she said. “I had several superhero teachers who showed me what a huge impact an engaging, loving, and trust-filled education has on a child’s life. Our teachers were our cheerleaders, our role models, and sometimes, even our caretakers.” While a student at Furman University, Pendley took over management of the Clubhouse Gang, an afterschool program for students in underserved neighborhoods. Along with volunteers, she met with students twice a week to mentor them and help with homework. After college, she initially began work on a doctorate in sociology, but realized that she belonged in the field, with students. “When students leave my classroom, I want them to know that they are loved, uniquely talented, and that learning from their mistakes is the key to becoming successful,” Pendley said. “I never want students to be held back by the numbers they receive on papers, but rather, I want students to know that their growth is what matters – growth as a confident individual with integrity, growth in their relationships, and growth in their academic abilities.” As Georgia Teacher of the Year, Pendley will represent Georgia teachers by speaking to the public about the teaching profession and potentially conducting workshops and programs for educators. She will also participate in the competitive selection process for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year.  2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year Finalists Tracey Pendley, 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year, Burgess Peterson Academy, Atlanta Public Schools  Stephanie Peterson, 2020 Runner-Up, Westside Elementary School, Lowndes County Schools  Kristen Applebee, Georgia Academy for the Blind, State Schools  Amy Arnold, Colham Ferry Elementary School, Oconee County Schools  Dr. David Bishop Collins, Fernbank Science Center, DeKalb County Schools  Carlos Hernandez, General Ray Davis Middle School, Rockdale County Schools  Lewis Kelly, Newton High School, Newton County Schools  Kiana Pinckney, Palmetto Elementary School, Fulton County Schools  Teresa Thompson, South Tattnall Middle School, Tattnall County Schools  Francisco “Frank” Zamora, Johnson High School, Hall County Schools
  • President Jimmy Carter was released from Phoebe Sumter Medical Center today and will continue to recuperate from a broken hip at home, according to  information from The Carter Center. The former president will undergo physical therapy as part of his recovery from hip replacement surgery. He broke the hip Monday when he took a fall while preparing to go turkey hunting in south Georgia. The Carter Center said that Carter will teach Sunday school on his regularly scheduled date this weekend at Maranatha Baptist Church.  Also, Wednesday, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter felt faint and was admitted overnight to the hospital for observation and testing. She left the hospital with President Carter this morning. Both of the Carter’s extended their thanks to the many people who sent well wishes the past few days. Monday, both Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump tweeted out their wishes and support for the 94-year-old former president. > RELATED: Carter Center invites public to sign get-well card for President Carter
  • The National Rifle Association elected Carolyn Meadows of Marietta as its new president this week. Here are some key things to know about the new leader in the gun-rights group. She grew up in what was then rural Cobb County, where she and her siblings learned early to shoot guns. An 8th grade teacher assigned her to write a paper on Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom her father did not like. She asked for a different assignment, which ended up being a classroom debate with the teacher on FDR . “I cleaned his clock,” Meadows said. The 80-year-old is retired from Lockheed-Martin, where she was a buyer for the employee store. She was an early Republican operative, volunteering for former Congressman Bo Callaway’s gubernatorial campaign in 1966 by knocking on doors. State Republicans elected Meadows to a number of local and state party seats, including service as Georgia’s National Chairwoman for 12 years. She has been an NRA board member and officer since 2003. Meadows is the second vice chairman of American Conservative Union, a grassroots organizing and lobbying organization. She chairs the board of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the agency charged with overseeing the park. Meadows is a member of the National Council for Policy, an influential conservative think tank. She says she is “lucky” in that she doesn’t need much sleep. Read our story about her election earlier this week.
  • A day before a celebration to thank the hundreds of Henderson Mill Elementary School parents, students and alumni who rallied behind him in a dispute with the DeKalb County School District, veteran PE teacher James O’Donnell learned DeKalb was rescinding his recent teacher of the year award. Known as Coach OD, O’Donnell was voted Henderson Mill Elementary School’s teacher of the year by his colleagues in mid-March. A sign at the school proclaimed him teacher of the year, as does the school yearbook. Yet, the principal notified O’Donnell Friday he could not receive the honor, apparently owing to a county policy that staff involved in disciplinary actions aren't eligible for the title. “Friday's action to remove Dr. O'Donnell's award, disrespecting the vote of the teachers at Henderson Mill, is a slap in the face,” said Bray Patrick-Lake, who leads a Team OD alumni Facebook group of 880 people. In an email Sunday at 11:10 p.m., DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green told me: Mr. James O’Donnell does not meet the eligibility criteria for Teacher of the Year. The District reserves the right to use alternates or exclude winners for non-compliance of school board policies, practices, rules or regulations or change in employment status. A teacher at Henderson Mill Elementary for almost 40 years, O’Donnell was suspended in November over how he disciplined a student.  O’Donnell was teaching a PE class in the gym, a separate building connected to the main school building by a covered walkway. When a 10-year-old student acted up, O’Donnell made him stand outside the door to the walkway.  What happened next is the crux of the controversy. O’Donnell said the boy chose to run out in the rain, arriving to his next class wet and cold. (It was 46 degrees and raining.) The child’s mother said O’Donnell endangered her son by sending him outside and that no adult was watching him.  Current families at the school and former students from around the country were outraged at the suspension and the allegation Coach OD would endanger a child. They protested outside the school, flocked to board meetings, created social media campaigns and launched a Go Fund Me effort for legal fees. District documents related to the case reveal Henderson Mill Elementary principal Cassandra Moore, new to the school this year, did not want O’Donnell back on her staff. The documents also show regional superintendent Trenton Arnold recommended termination. But, in February, DeKalb announced it had worked out a legal agreement with O’Donnell and he would return to work at Henderson Mill Elementary School on Feb. 25. Less than a month later, his fellow teachers voted him teacher of the year.  On Saturday, around 200 people gathered in a church hall in the community where O’Donnell thanked them for their efforts on his behalf. They, in turn, shared their memories of his PE class and examples of his dedication. A former administrator at Henderson said he was probably the finest educator she has ever known. “At the event to thank everyone for their support over these last six months, there was a lot of outrage about the time, energy, and money this incident has consumed,” said  Patrick-Lake. “The community is frustrated that Dr. O'Donnell was never given the benefit of the doubt. Had we not come together so fervently and dug in for a battle, we would have been steamrolled by DeKalb County. How many times has this happened to a community less affluent and organized? How many community treasures and outstanding educators have been driven out of DeKalb by these despicable methods of harassment and intimidation? ” Parents fear stripping his teacher of the year honor is a prelude to transferring O’Donnell out of Henderson Mill. I reached out to DeKalb school board member Allyson Gevertz, who attended Saturday’s community celebration, about what was happening to O’Donnell. “I don’t have all the info on this, so I really can’t comment,” she said. I also reached out to the Georgia Department of Education as to whether there are rules for teacher of the year selections at the schoolhouse level.  The DOE spokeswoman told me, “I’m not aware of any statewide rules or regulations surrounding Teacher of the Year selections down at the school level. It’s an award given by the school and isn’t tied to state law or board rule. The district may have a process by which each of their schools are expected to select their Teacher of the Year, but that would be a question for them.” On Facebook pages in support of O’Donnell, dozens of parents and alumni expressed dismay over this latest twist.  “I am in shock. This is despicable. Rally the troops, it is time for another fight. I can’t believe this,” wrote one.  Another said, “In my opinion, for a principal to rescind an award voted on by staff is unprofessional. To announce that rescission on the Friday before OD's celebration indicates a level of pettiness that does not bode well for success as a leader. I'd say unbelievable, but nothing surprises me any more.” Is anyone surprised? 
  • A University of Georgia fraternity has been suspended after a video appearing to show some of its members using a racial slur and mocking slavery went viral on social media. (Content warning: The video is attached to the tweet below and includes the racial slur.) The video appears to show one student playfully hitting another with a belt while telling him to “Pick my cotton” and using a racial slur. Further details behind the content of the video have not been reported at this time.  In a letter to the student body, UGA’s Student Government Association said Friday evening it was aware of the video being circulated online and that the school’s fraternity chapter has been suspended amid an investigation into the students involved. “The executive officers of the Student Government Association are aware of a video circulating on social media that depicts individuals identified as members of a UGA Greek organization using racist language and engaging in behaviors that mock the suffering of enslaved peoples,” the letter reads. “We have been notified that the chapter is currently suspended, and we can confirm that there is an investigation underway regarding the students involved in the video.” Several Twitter users and media outlets identified the students in the video as members of UGA’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. In a statement sent to AJC.com Saturday evening, a spokesman for the fraternity’s national chapter said the organization is “disgusted, appalled and angered” by the four students’ remarks and the students have been expelled from the fraternity. “TKE will not tolerate any actions such as these that would be defined as racist, discriminatory and/or offensive,” the statement reads. “After being alerted to the incident yesterday, Tau Kappa Epsilon professional staff and members of the Xi-Lambda chapter at University of Georgia immediately began a thorough investigation into the actions of these four men.” According to the statement, members determined the video was not recorded during a fraternity function or on chapter premises. “These four individuals acted outside the expectations of our membership and their chapter and therefore were removed from both,” the statement reads. “Temporary suspension is a standard procedure so we can conduct our investigation,” the national chapter said in its statement. The university also released a statement about the incident. “The University of Georgia condemns racism in the strongest terms. Racism has no place on our campus. We will continue our efforts to promote a welcoming and supportive learning environment for our students, faculty and staff.  “The fraternity has been suspended by its national organization.   “Whenever we receive complaints of racist or discriminatory conduct, we refer such matters to our Equal Opportunity Office in accordance with applicable laws and policies.” In other news:   
  • Today, 2,860 high school seniors who applied to Georgia Tech under its regular admission process found out they were admitted.  Georgia Tech recorded another record year for applications, with a total of 36,936 applicants, a nearly 4 percent increase from last year. Between the early action acceptances released in January and today’s regular decison round, about 7,000 students were admitted to Georgia Tech’s class of 2023. The rising number of students applying to Georgia Tech continues to lower its admission rate; this year the overall admissions rate is 18.8 percent (37.7 percent for in-state residents, and 14.9 percent for non-Georgia residents).  Tech’s admission rate puts it on par with Emory University, which last year reported a rate of 18.5 percent. The University of Georgia admits nearly half of the students who apply, with an admission rate last year of 48 percent. The size of the freshman class at Tech has remained steady, with around 3,000 new Yellow Jackets students arriving each August at the midtown campus.  (There are a lot of myths about getting into Tech. Go here to learn them.) According to Tech: Around 10 percent of applicants received a waitlist offer, and about 6,000 students are being offered a transfer pathway. Transfer pathway programs are provide students the opportunity to complete a set number of classes at another institution and transfer to Georgia Tech the following fall. Tech now has six pathway programs that provide a wide range of students the opportunity to ultimately become a Yellow Jacket.  “We’re seeing these pathways work, as more than 300 students applied for fall transfer this year via a pathway program,” said Mary Tipton Woolley, senior associate director for Undergraduate Admission. About 15 percent of first year students begin Tech in the iGniTe Summer Program, which helps students launch their college career by focusing on areas such as leadership, innovation, sustainability, and research. Students were admitted from all 50 states and from 96 nations of citizenship. The admitted pool also includes more than 400 Georgia Tech or Atlanta Public School Scholars — students who are valedictorians or salutatorians of their graduating class and received automatic acceptance. By the Numbers: 18.8 percent overall admit rate (37.7 percent in-state, 14.9 percent non-Georgia resident) 50 states 96 countries  In Georgia: 37.7 percent admit rate 388 Georgia high schools 112 counties      
  • Many readers were shocked when I wrote this summer about Jorge Santa-Hernandez, the 15-year-old Harrison High School freshman facing charges, including two felonies, for what his parents called justifiable self-defense against a senior who bullied him.  Today, all charges were dismissed against Jorge, according to his attorney Mitch Skandalakis. “Cobb threw out all the charges,” said Skandalakis.  “I can confirm that the case you asked about was dismissed, but we cannot speak further on a Juvenile Court matter,” said Cobb DA spokeswoman Kim Isaza. Both teens had been asked by the court to write a letter about their role in the incident. Since Jorge complied and the other teen did not, the district attorney asked the court to dismiss the charges against him, said Skandalakis. Neither Jorge nor his parents attended this morning’s hearing in a Cobb juvenile court.  Skandalakis said his investigation in this case – including a review of discipline records in Cobb Schools – shows Cobb minimizes bullying incidents and treats kids who fight back the same as students who initiate the harassment. That, he said, is illegal and the Santa-Hernandez family is looking into suing for wrongful arrest. “We are going to be looking at all of that, but my main concern right now is that the way Cobb operates as far bullying must be completely revamped,” said father Jorge Santa, in a telephone interview after he learned charges against his son were dismissed. “I was approached by other Cobb parents who were victims of this same policy of zero tolerance,” said Santa, who is an Atlanta Police Department investigator. “The school administrators are not looking at these incidents as bullying. They are reporting them as fights rather than bullying or harassment. Then, they don’t have to do any investigation. They just want to suspend everybody. The victim is victimized twice, once by the bully and then by the school system.” In 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled, “Zero tolerance policies against school fights must nevertheless apply the Georgia statute that gives students the right to argue self-defense as justification for the fight.” “When they write their police reports in Cobb Schools, they don’t use the word bullying. They use words like horseplay and other nonsense like that. This is a pattern and practice of Cobb County,” said Skandalakis. “They are not enforcing the bullying laws.”  During the final day school in May, Jorge was sitting in a computer lab when two seniors he did not know approached him. According to his father: My son is barely 100 pounds, the typical skinny kid with glasses. Picking is one thing. These two seniors go into his bag and steal his food. They start calling him names. One kid made a remark, ‘If we were in Africa, you would be picking up cotton and I would be picking up diamonds.’ My son still tries to deflect this with humor, but then his friend warns him they are walking toward him, and one has his hand behind his back holding something. Then, the senior shoots Silly String at my son’s face. My son jumped up and hit him three times and, when the kid turns around, my son put him in rear headlock and he falls, and my son let go.” (Silly String is a plastic goo that shoots in strands from a pressurized can.) After his son was sent home from school, Santa met with assistant principal Art O’Neill, recording the tense session on his phone. While Harrison High generally agreed with Jorge’s account of what happened after interviewing student witnesses, O’Neill avoided calling it harassment or bullying during the conversation, saying the seniors were “picking at Jorge.” O’Neill also maintained Jorge should not have responded physically, telling Santa, “Jorge had options. He chose not to take those options … Your son had every opportunity to make the teacher aware of the harassing situation. Jorge could have wiped the Silly String off of him and gone to the teacher and said, ‘This needs to stop.’” But Mike Tafelski of Georgia Legal Services Program, the prevailing attorney in last year’s state Supreme Court case affirming a student’s right to self-defense, told me:  The law doesn’t say that. If the child has a reasonable belief that the use of force is necessary to defend himself when that aerosol can is aimed at him, he has a right to stand his ground. The question is what constitutes reasonable belief,” said Tafelski. “Would it be a reasonable belief when someone who’s a high school freshman is being bullied and a senior pulls out a canister from behind his back? When Santa reminded O’Neill on the recording that state law now requires schools to consider whether students acted in self-defense, O’Neill told him, “My job is school code. And in the student code of conduct, Jorge’s action was not justified.”  In response to this case, a Cobb Schools spokeswoman said, “Bullying is a serious issue which is dealt with by Cobb County administrators in accordance with Georgia Code O.C.G.A 20-2-751.4. Each and every Cobb administrator has been trained to review any student discipline infraction objectively, with a reliance on the facts which are available through investigation. Criminal charges which result from discipline infractions are investigated by Cobb County School District police in accordance with appropriate state law. Cobb County School District police officers have, on average, 26 years of experience. We proudly stand behind their expertise, judgment, and enforcement of the law.' 
  • A fake email could rob some college students of federal money.  The U.S. Department of Education’s financial aid office has reported a “malicious phishing campaign” using a phony message to gain access to students’ accounts at several colleges. It does not identify any of the schools affected. The phony message targets students who are due a refund of financial-aid money. When a student is eligible for more aid than the cost of tuition and housing, colleges and universities typically send the extra amount to students electronically, using the institutions’ online student portals. A student set to receive $15,000 in aid, for example, who only had to pay $12,000 for tuition and housing, could get $3,000. An example of one of the scam messages invites students to confirm some information on their school accounts. Then, the education department says, the attackers change the direct-deposit information so the refund would be sent to their account instead.  The scheme has worked, the department warns, because students have provided the information the email requested. “The nature of the requests indicates the attackers have done some level of research and understand the schools’ use of student portals and methods,” it said in a press release. “Federal Student Aid believes that attackers are practicing and refining the scheme on a smaller scale now and that this will emerge as a prominent threat … during periods when FSA funds are disseminated in large volumes,” it said. The department encouraged colleges and universities to switch from single-factor authentication on the student portals, the setup where only one piece of verifying information, a password, is needed to access an account. It wants schools to use “two-facator or multi-factor authentification processes” that “rely on a combination of factors, for example, user name and password combined with a PIN or security questions or access through a secure, designated device.” The release also says funds issued “inappropriately may become the responsibility of the institution.”  
  • A bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in March now means students will see “In God We Trust” displayed at all schools in the state. WPTV reported that the law requires the state motto to be shown in a “conspicuous place.” >> Read more trending news  According to state statute 1003.44, “Each district school board shall adopt rules to require, in all of the schools of the district and in each building used by the district school board, the display of the state motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ designated under s. 15.0301, in a conspicuous place.” According to the Florida Department of State, “In God We Trust” was adopted by the state legislature as part of the state seal in 1868. It was officially designated as Florida’s state motto in 2006.