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Local Education

    A day care took on city hall and demonstrated that little people — seriously little people — can win. The Forest Park City Council voted Monday night to amend its zoning law to allow farm stands in more areas. “Oh my god, we are so overjoyed,” said Wande Okunoren-Meadows, the executive director of Little Ones Early Learning Center. Until last fall, the center had been selling fruits and vegetables raised by her preschoolers, along with organic produce from area farms. Then, concerned about traffic and the potential for copycat sales, the city shut them down. The school is in a residential area that wasn’t zoned for such sales. “Anywhere you live, you’ve got to have rules and regulations,” then-City Manager Angela Redding told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall. “Otherwise, you would just have whatever.” That didn’t play well on social media, earning rebukes from fresh foodies far and wide, on both sides of the partisan divide. The Michelle Obama Fan Club on Facebook posted about it (she was into healthy food for kids), as did the Republican agriculture commissioner for Texas, Sid Miller, who had this reaction on Facebook: “More politicians who just don’t get it! #Sad #Stupid #Shameful.” >> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Preschool growing fruits and veggies ordered by city to stop sales Okunoren-Meadows heard from supporters as far away as Australia. She asked them to flood officials’ phone lines, “picking at them and picking at them,” as she put it. A couple dozen supporters showed up Monday night, including representatives from a legal clinic and an organic food group, plus parents and children. Few got to speak in the 10 minutes they were allotted, but Okunoren-Meadows said the showing may have swayed one council member who entered the building undecided but cast her lot with the majority in the 5-1 vote. Getting parents time to speak has been a frustration. So many showed up at a prior hearing that officials asked that just one represent them all. The parents, who’d taken time off from work, refused. Children were there, too. “I love that it comes hand-picked from their very own garden,” one girl then told council members, explaining that her mom shopped for the family there. “I’m dealing with asthma and the fresh fruits and vegetables have helped me.” For Okunoren-Meadows, a noted leader in the farm to early care and education movement, this was never about business. She said she generally lost money. Her main goal: teach her students and their parents how to eat well, and provide wholesome food for the community. When it appeared she was making no headway with the city, Okunoren-Meadows hired a lawyer. It’s been a long slog since then — so long that one sympathetic council member had to stand for reelection and lost, and Redding lost her job as city manager, both apparently over other issues. Then, earlier this month, Little Ones got a promising vote out of a city planning commission meeting. The commission recommended changing the law to allow farm stands as a “conditional use,” which is zoning parlance for “maybe we will let you.” Okunoren-Meadows had thought things were going against her based on their questions: they worried about parking, asked why the produce she sourced off site couldn’t come from farms within the city and wondered why Little Ones needed a farm stand when there is a state farmers market in the city. She told the AJC afterward that she had minimal sales, mostly to parents who were already parking there or to neighbors who walked up and that she is in a high-poverty neighborhood where many lack cars and cannot get to the farmers market. And, she said, where would one find a farm in Forest Park? >> MAP | Where are metro Atlanta’s food deserts? State Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, represents an area where many of the Little Ones parents live and described it is a “food desert.” She considered introducing legislation to allow day cares to operate farm stands, but said cities, due to the state constitution, wouldn’t be subject to it. Permitting a day care farm stand in Forest Park would be a “win-win for our community because we don’t have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Stovall said. Some communities were already open to this sort of thing. Atlanta, for instance, permits “market gardens” to sell site-grown produce in residential areas in some circumstances, and schools qualify. Now that Forest Park has approved the change, Little Ones must apply for a permit to sell produce. If granted, it would apply for the duration of Little Ones’ time on the property. Little Ones lawyer, Michelle Namer, said there is a good chance the day care will be able to resume food sales, but a permit is not guaranteed. “You’re going to get it unless there’s an extenuating circumstance,” Namer said. “Of course, with local government there’s always that political aspect.” Last week, City Councilman Allan Mears, an early supporter of the school, said the city had concerns about everything from food safety to traffic safety, especially if other people wanted to open farm stands once the law permitted it for Little Ones. “When you do for one, you’ve got to do for the rest of them,” he said. “The main thing was safety of the kids and safety of the city.” Mears was optimistic of passage and voted with the majority. In the grand scheme of things it’s a little victory, affecting one farm stand in a small city, but Okunoren-Meadows said it’s a big lesson for her students. “I hope people understand that they don’t have to give up,” she said. “No matter what forces are out there, keep pressing.”
  • Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Cobb County Thursday to tour a high school and to bolster public support for his proposed pay raise for teachers. After getting the General Assembly to back a raise last year, Kemp is pushing for another $2,000 to complete a 2018 campaign pledge. But fellow Republican and state House Speaker David Ralston has his own goals for the 2021 budget and has said a raise for teachers may have to wait. The state likely cannot afford both that and an income tax cut that many lawmakers want. The impasse has led to a legislative shutdown that Ralston called last week to work on the budget. On Thursday, Kemp toured McEachern High School in Cobb County, which has a new nurse prep program. It was a friendly venue to tout his legislative agenda, including the raise. Under his budget proposal, the state would, for the third year in a row, pay the maximum in the school funding formula. And Kemp is budgeting more than $350 million more “to deliver the promise of the $5,000 pay raise that I campaigned on,” he said during the school visit. Standing in front of cameras and flanked by educators, students, lawmakers and other officials, the governor said 44% of Georgia teachers leave the profession within their first five years. “Those in this room know we have a serious teacher retention problem that requires our immediate attention,” he said. “I believe this well-deserved pay raise will go a long way to incentivizing our best and brightest to stay in the classroom.” He is also budgeting millions more to give other school employees raises. It may not sound like much in a $28 billion budget, but a lot of that money is already spoken for. The overall education allocation alone consumes more than a third of the total, at nearly $11 billion. Health care and other costs consume much of the rest. Lawmakers have their own plans for the remaining discretionary dollars. In 2018, they cut the top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75%, and planned to reduce it further this year to 5.5%. That 2018 reduction played a role in Kemp’s demand for budget cuts this year and next. His budget doesn’t contemplate the extra quarter percentage point tax cut that Ralston wants, and the money would have to come from somewhere. Last week, after Ralston called a halt to the legislative session, he described the raise as “a big, big ticket” item and said the tax cut “was a commitment that we made to the taxpayers of Georgia. … We had always planned to do the second step this year.” The next day, he said he understood Kemp wanted to keep his campaign promise and that he didn’t disagree with the goal. He said he wasn’t saying “no” to the raise. “It may just be saying ‘not now.’” Kemp’s decision to take his campaign on the road suggests he wants leverage in negotiations with Ralston, said Brandon Phillips, a Republican strategist. In his first year in office, Kemp traveled across the state to meet with teachers and school administrators. It’s a meet-the-people style that makes Phillips think of President Donald Trump, whose election campaign he managed in Georgia. “I think our governor has found success and likes being out on the trail,” Phillips said. “I think he’s using all the levers he can find.” He said it’s unclear which is more popular, a tax cut or a teacher pay raise, but added that Kemp did campaign hard on the pay raise and won statewide and, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, his poll numbers have risen considerably since his election. RELATED →  Georgia House budget writers vote down some of Kemp’s proposed cuts RELATED → ‘Toxic politics.’ The feud between Kemp and Ralston takes sharp turn RELATED → Kemp’s budget may make it harder to cut Georgia income tax rate again in 2020 Lawmakers who previously found it difficult to get financial information from the Kemp administration have found a “renewed spirit of cooperation” during the legislative break, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s spokesman. With that cooperation, they have discovered even more budgetary needs, such as a 95% turnover rate among correctional officers, GBI scientists to process sexual assault evidence, food inspectors and mental health professionals. “The speaker agrees with the governor, in principle, that teachers deserve a further raise, but the budget process is about balancing priorities with critical needs,” McMichen said. Kemp has a ready-made network to support his pay initiative. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators has been encouraging its 97,000 members to pepper Ralston’s colleagues in the House of Representatives with emails and phone calls in favor. Next week, as the legislative session resumes, that group and others will be hosting member visits to the Gold Dome. It’s an annual show of force, when teachers meet lawmakers and lawmakers, who will be up for reelection later in the year, try to make a good impression. “I suspect that advocacy in support of the pay raise will intensify next week,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s chief lobbyist. In a survey of association members last year, compensation was the No. 1 concern, she said. The $3,000 pay raise granted last year, and the promise of more to come, may already be having an effect, at least with older teachers. “Great teachers who may have retired are staying,” said Regina Montgomery, the McEachern principal. Teacher pensions are based on the final two years of pay, so to capitalize on the recent increase, teachers need to stick around. L.C. (Buster) Evans, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, said the number of teachers who retire statewide had been growing by 200 or 300 a year — until now. So far this year, retirements have actually dropped by a hundred, he said, and he surmises it is because teachers want these raises reflected in their pension checks. “I really think it’s one of those things that’s an unintended consequence,” he said. “People like making more money.” Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said his district used last year’s $3,000 raise to supplement local funding that gave teachers the biggest pay raise in district history. Dave Shuler, 65, is an automotive instructor at McEachern who can retire next fall, and probably will. His body can’t take the work anymore, he said, and the pay raise doesn’t change that. Even so, it’s been nice to have the extra $300 or so a month. “My wife really loves it,” he said.
  • The DeKalb County Board of Education received a redistricting plan Monday that would move a popular magnet program from near Dunwoody and move fourth and fifth graders from Dunwoody Elementary School to the site of the to-be-moved magnet. DeKalb Schools’ latest round of Musical Chairs, approved Monday evening during the board’s monthly meeting, will see Dunwoody Elementary, as well as Cary Reynolds and Dresden elementary schools, remove portable classrooms and allow all the students there to be taught in-house for the first time in more than a decade. “We’ve been here before,” Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said Monday afternoon in her first presentation to the school board. “And we can get through it.” According to the plan, generated over the last three months by a group of more than a dozen district employees led by Tyson, the Kittredge Magnet School would move from its current home at Nancy Creek, 1663 East Nancy Creek Drive NE in Brookhaven, to the former John Lewis Elementary School at 2383 North Druid Hills Road in Atlanta. The Nancy Creek facility will become home to Dunwoody Elementary School’s fourth and fifth graders. Tyson said the plan’s goals are to begin providing relief to overcrowded schools in several school clusters — elementary, middle and high schools in the same attendance zone — while populating the new Doraville United Elementary School and committing to a comprehensive master plan for alleviating the overcrowding. Doraville United is scheduled to open in August and can hold up to 950 students. The moves don’t sit right with some parents, who said they felt parents were not consulted enough by district officials for the initial presentation to the school board in January. Hela Sheth said the final plan appeared online Friday with no warning. “I’m shocked by the process by which the system proposed and I’m disappointed they’re voting on this tonight, especially with no community input or feedback,” Sheth said Monday, adding that she participated in several community input meetings to address overcrowding last fall. “It seems very knee-jerk, hasty and half-baked.” District officials received letters from parent advisory councils from Ashford Park, Dunwoody, Huntley Hills, Montgomery elementary schools and the Kittredge Magnet School saying the plan was hastily done with no imput from those in the affected communities. Another Dunwoody Elementary parent, Kim Schneller, said during public comment at the board meeting Monday afternoon that while she was pleased that the plan would alleviate the school’s overcrowding, she had concerns about seemingly little affect on neighboring schools and their overcrowding issues. She asked the board to delay the redistricting moves until plan implementation details are made public. “I don’t know whether or not it’s a good plan,” she said. “The Dunwoody and Chamblee communities have spent five months on this, given our all and left it on the field. “On Friday, we were thrown a curveball.” Parents have suggested using empty seats in the new Austin Elementary School to help with overcrowding, too. Dan Drake, the district’s interim chief operations officer, said there were no empty seats expected when the school opens. About 750 students are expected from current enrollment. Another 102 would come from Dunwoody Elementary, and the district expects a 100-student bump from different variables — including the fact that parents often jump at the chance for their children to attend a new school. “Just because there’s this brand new beautiful building, parents find a way to have their children attend,” Drake said. Tyson said during the committee meeting earlier in the day that some concerns she’s heard from parents during the process reminded her of when Dunwoody Elementary School was set to open a decade ago, with enrollment projections not filling the school. It opened as a grade four and five academy instead. Tyson said she’s fielded emails and phone calls from a “silent majority” of residents who appear to support her initial redistricting plan. Then, she read from a letter she said came from a parent whose children attended that first iteration of Dunwoody Elementary. The parent mentioned that the students from those first few years are now attending college at many known schools, including the University of Georgia. “Change is hard. Change is necessary. But our children are resilient,” Tyson said. “You came together 10 years ago. You can now.” Related to the plan, the district’s plan to address cost overruns in its Education-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax V program now earmarks $35 million for a new elementary school in the Dunwoody school zone.
  • High school seniors who have applied to one of Georgia’s colleges and universities will spend the next six weeks or so waiting to see if they get in. Admission to one of the schools is much tougher than the others, though, according to the website 24/7 Wall St. » University recruits students with military backgrounds Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the site created an index of acceptance rates and SAT/ ACT scores for admitted students for more than 1,200 four-year schools nationwide to determine the 50 that are the hardest to get in to. All eight Ivy League schools are on the list. California Institute of Technology tops the ranking, with an acceptance rate of 7.7%, and SAT scores of 1,530 and 1,590. Cal Tech is followed by, in order, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Chicago and Yale University. Only one Georgia school made the top 50.  Emory University in Atlanta finished No. 41, with an acceptance rate of 22%, and SAT scores of 1,350 and 1,520. Emory has a student-faculty ratio of 9:1, and the average net price of attending the school is $26,804 a year, according to 24/7. » Emory University ranks No. 1 in America for best quality of life Emory’s website describes it as “a top-ranked private institution recognized internationally for its outstanding liberal arts colleges, graduate and professional schools, and one of the world's leading health care systems.” In June, Emory announced it had received a $180 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will fund analyses aimed at lowering child mortality rates in some of the world’s poorest communities. It’s the largest ever one-time research grant for the school. » Emory breaks ground on $469 million cancer treatment tower in Midtown And in November, Brookhaven approved Emory’s proposal to build a $1 billion research and medical complex at Executive Park. For those students who applied to Emory for fall 2020, you should know at the beginning of April if you’re one of the lucky few to be accepted. » Georgia’s top 10 high schools for 2020 » Georgia’s 10 best public high schools for 2020, according to Niche
  • In a move that will likely please many teachers and students, Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday announced he will back legislation that reduces the number of high-stakes tests in schools. Kemp traveled the state last year and heard from school leaders, parents and teachers who complained about how tests had come to dominate classroom time. “Today, we’re sending a clear message: We hear you and we’ve got your back,” he said in a brief speech in his office. “Georgia simply tests too much.” He was flanked by state school Superintendent Richard Woods, along with Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both the state House and the Senate, suggesting significant backing during this legislative session. Woods, who toured the state with Kemp, said he believes teachers will prepare students well without the oversight that tests provide. “I put my faith in the teachers of this state,” he said. Kemp has been an advocate for the state’s teachers, too, giving them a $3,000 pay raise last year and putting another $2,000 raise in his latest budget proposal. The Georgia General Assembly had already reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests from 32 to 24 in 2016. But that is still above the 17 required by federal law. The new legislation, coming through the Senate, calls for the elimination of five of those seven extra tests: one in fifth grade and the rest in high school. Advocacy groups for teachers and school administrators helped draft the legislation. That doesn’t mean all teachers support it. Monica Hardy, an elementary school teacher in Wilkes County, thinks too much time is consumed by testing in elementary school. But she still thinks testing is necessary because subjects that aren’t tested tend to get “pushed to the wayside.” Instead of fewer tests, Hardy, who teaches fourth and fifth grades, wants them to be shorter. That’s what she told Kemp last fall at his teacher listening session in Gwinnett County. She spoke of students who struggled to finish three-hour tests, some moved to tears and questioning their own intelligence when they couldn’t. Kemp’s proposal would shorten the tests somewhat by removing questions used to gauge how students compare against peers nationwide, but Hardy wonders whether that is enough. “It’s only something like 10 questions, but it’s still better than nothing,” she said. The legislation would eliminate the fifth grade social studies test and a high school English, math, science and social studies test. (There are currently two in each area, and the Georgia Board of Education would select which to cut.) That would move Georgia into the middle of the pack for the number of tests, said Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. Georgia has more high school tests than many and that’s a good thing, said Tyner, who has co-authored research that found states with more high school tests had better outcomes on measures such as graduation rates. While elementary students may not be suited to the high-stakes nature of these tests, he said, high school students should be. “People who are concerned about over-testing have some legitimate points, but those points are most valid in elementary school,” he said. Testing was popular two decades ago when President George W. Bush ushered in the No Child Left Behind era that was going to hold schools accountable to ever higher standards. The reality in the classroom, where teachers felt so much pressure to do well that they focused on test preparation, angered many parents, though. That gave rise to movements like Opt Out Georgia, an 8,000-member group that wants an end to testing. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Meg Norris, the former public school teacher who founded the group. Kemp’s legislation is a great first step, she said, adding that high school students suffer consequences from testing. “I’ve talked to hundreds of parents whose kids lost scholarships because tests destroyed their grade-point average,” she said. The high school tests currently count for a fifth of students’ course grades. The legislation would not only cut in half the tests but also empower the state education board to decide whether the tests should affect grades.
  • The Georgia Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would reduce how many college courses high school students can take in a dual enrollment program that is paid for by state funding. House Bill 444 would restrict students to a total of 30 college credit hours, and would mainly limit courses to 11th and 12th grade students, with some exceptions. Currently, they can take up to 15 credit hours a semester. Students who want to take more than 30 credit hours would have to pay for additional classes. The legislation has a grandfather clause for current dual enrollment students, but there are credit hour restrictions for some students.  The bill passed by a 34-18 margin. Proponents say the legislation is needed to reduce the rising costs of the state’s dual enrollment program, once known as Move On When Ready, which began in 1992. A 2018 state audit found general fund spending for the dual enrollment program increased by more than 325% over the prior five years. The 2019 fiscal year budget was about $105 million. Enrollment has nearly doubled in a recent four-year stretch, from about 27,000 students in fiscal year 2016 to nearly 52,000 students in fiscal year 2019, state records show. Georgia’s fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30. “We put guard rails on the program to save it for generations to come,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough. The bill’s critics questioned whether a thorough analysis was done to determine program costs. They also raised concerns that it would discourage some lower-income students from seeking a college degree since they may have to pay for some dual enrollment courses. “I’m not satisfied if we did our job (researching the bill),” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. The bill will now go to the state’s House of Representatives for a vote. Clarification: This story has been updated to include that the legislation has credit hour restrictions for some students currently in the dual enrollment program.
  • The Executive Committee of the General Board of the African Methodist Episcopal Church has voted to forgive over $4 million in debt owed to it by Morris Brown College, school officials announced Tuesday. The college, located near Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has agreed to create a $1.5 million scholarship for AME members worldwide. College officials said the decision is an important step in its effort to regain its accreditation, which was revoked in 2002. Because Morris Brown is not accredited, students are not able to receive federal loans which are critical to paying tuition at most colleges. “The removal of the long-term debt improves our position ... which is a critical part of the accreditation process. We are thankful to the AME Church,” said Shermanetta Carter, the college’s chief financial officer. > RELATED: Grant could be key step in restoring Morris Brown’s historic building The college has continued to operate, albeit with far fewer students than its peak of 2,700 before losing accreditation. Its enrollment was about 40 students earlier this year, officials said. Morris Brown College last year became a correspondence school with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which means the college has been officially approved to start the process to become accredited. The college hopes this year to be a candidate for accreditation with TRACS.  Once a candidate, Morris Brown said it will be eligible for federal Title IV funding, which includes Pell grants and Perkins loans.  Morris Brown was founded by the Georgia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1881. It was the first historically black college and university in Georgia founded by African-Americans.  
  • Parents who hope to enroll their child in the pre-kindergarten program at Atlanta Public Schools can fill out an application beginning today. The district will start accepting lottery applications for the 2020-2021 school year on Jan. 6. The application window closes Feb. 12 at 11:59 p.m.  Students are randomly selected for pre-kindergarten classes through an electronic lottery process. The lottery drawing takes place Feb. 24.  To apply for the lottery, children must turn 4 by Sept. 1. They also must live within the APS attendance area. District employees may apply, and applicants must have a valid email address.  For more information, visit the district’s website.
  • The DeKalb County School District served meals to students and families again during an extended school break. Officials said meals were being served at Stoneview and Flat Shoals elementary schools for several days during the district’s winter break, which began on Dec. 20. Students return to class on Monday. Breakfast and lunch items were available between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. The district is making a habit of feeding students during extended breaks. Several schools opened during last year’s winter and spring breaks to serve food, thanks to funding from an anonymous donor. Vasanne Tinsley, the districts deputy superintendent for student support and intervention, has said the program allows students who depend on meals received at school to continue a largely uninterrupted meal schedule. Hunger has been directly tied to student achievement through several studies.
  • The public will have four chances in January to weigh in on a plan that will guide decisions about Atlanta school buildings.  Atlanta Public Schools scheduled community input meetings in January to provide updates about the facilities master planning process and gather input. The school board this summer agreed to spend $900,000 to develop a plan that will help them make decisions about consolidating and building schools. It will also include a demographic study to help forecast enrollment trends and figure out where the school-age population is increasing or declining.  The school board is tentatively scheduled to adopt the final plan in June.  The upcoming meetings all begin at 6 p.m. They will be held Jan. 8, at B.E.S.T. Academy/ Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy at 1190 Northwest Dr. NW; Jan. 15 at Inman Middle School, 774 Virginia Ave. NE; Jan. 16 at Therrell High School, 3099 Panther Trail, SW; and Jan. 22 at Washington High School, 45 Whitehouse Dr. NW.