The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How one impoverished public school district is making strides


Bertis Downs is a parent and an education activist who lives in Athens, Georgia. He was legal counselor and manager of the now disbanded band R.E.M., and he spends a great deal of time advocating for public education in Clarke County, where he lives, as well as around the country. In this post, Downs writes about the innovative leadership in Clarke schools by Phil Lanoue, who has run the district for six years and who was named 2015 National Superintendent of the Year.  Though Clarke County is impoverished, Lanoue has been credited with making more gains to close the achievement between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students than any other Georgia district.  Last year, Downs wrote an open letter to President Obama, inviting him to visit the Clarke school district to see how his education policies are  “actually hurting– not helping– schools like ours.” It

[National Superintendent of the Year teaches for a day. Here’s what he learned.]

By Bertis Downs

 “There are a lot of entrenched interests that are standing in the way of some the best possibilities for innovation.  We want to challenge and scrutinize the powers that be.”  — Campbell Brown,  prime mover in a $4 million education website, “The 74.”

“Innovative” might be the new “literally.” I hear it so often it has all but lost its meaning, literally.  A word that used to be reserved for truly inventive, creative solutions to major problems has become an empty buzzword for education policy reformers to slap on old, ineffective ideas.  When it comes to education policy, anything new better be labeled “innovative” if it’s going to have any chance of catching on.  Of course improving things in new ways is positive — who could argue with that?  Innovation is the way society advances. But for many education policy proposals, the term “innovative” can often be marketing talk, without much substance.

Labeling something “innovative” or “disruptive” (or both) doesn’t necessarily translate into good policy. Once you strip away the marketing and promotional froth, much of what is branded as “innovative” is often the same old inefficacy. “Value-added” teacher evaluation systems, the re-segregation (through “choice”) of our schools, “teacher quality programs,” state takeover “districts” for the lowest __% of schools (which are invariably the poorest schools in terms of demographics) and other flavor-of-the-month, standardized-test-based prescriptions are often just a cover for the constant over-testing of our children to produce data and metrics, and more all the time.

Are those policies really helping us improve and strengthen our schools?  I don’t think so. I don’t think many teachers or principals do either. And since they are the ones doing the work of educating our children, it’s a shame they so rarely are given a voice when it comes to making education policy in our state.

Political elites often go for the “sounds good” reform ideas pretty easily, which is why, in state after state (including Georgia), such measures are passed despite the logical objections of educators, parents, and students, all of whom want good schools for all kids, including their own. Perhaps you’ve noticed lately that many of these people – people who are actually involved in the schools – are taking to the streets with the “opt-out movement,” pushing back against the “reforms” that these politicians and consultants would never impose on the schools that educate their own kids.

I mean, really, if this over-testing, high-stakes culture is really such a great idea, wouldn’t reformers want this environment for their own children? Wouldn’t they push the elite private schools their children attend to adopt those “innovative reforms” too? The fact that they don’t is telling. These are not educationally sound ideas, and reformers know it, even as they call these policies “innovative” as they push them to the public. Do they think we don’t know better? Of course the schools exempt from the public mandates don’t nurture this absurd over-testing culture, especially the ones labeled “innovative” by those passing the laws.  Balderdash, by any other name…

Our family lives in Athens, Georgia, a community that – like most communities – values public education, and our kids go to our local public schools. Our school district has been innovating, really innovating in some pretty creative ways, some of which might even sound old-fashioned or simple. I actually prefer the word “intuitive.” Especially for the past six years, we are grateful for the leadership of Phil Lanoue, who was named 2015 National Superintendent of the Year.

He deserves the honor, and here’s why: he works to build up all Athens community schools by focusing on teaching and learning, using technology where it enhances the overall mission of educating students, working with community partners to try new techniques, enhancing efficacy, and emphasizing our  community’s capacity to support the work of our neighborhood schools. Dr. Lanoue is the first to state that he isn’t the only one putting in the work.  He sets a tone, supports his team members and advances good ideas that foster high-quality teaching and learning. Many of these ideas are proving themselves effective over the years.

Some examples are instructive:

* Local high school students can work on associate degrees and basic college courses at the Career Academy while enrolled in a regular high school. The Classic City High School, a non-traditional school setting that accommodates students who need a flexible schedule and a smaller learning environment, recently graduated its largest class yet – 44 students. This school, which opened its doors less than 10 years ago, is providing an avenue for its students to succeed and get a great education. As we’ve seen from the accomplishments of innovators like Einstein, Steve Jobs, and countless others, some of our best and most brilliant minds did not succeed in or enjoy traditional schools. Education should not be one-size-fits-all, and sometimes, true innovators need non-traditional approaches to flourish.

* Our school district has multiple creative partnerships with nonprofit groups. These groups are addressing issues ranging from  closing the Opportunity Gap (the Family Connection neighborhood leaders program) to  preventing summer learning loss (Books for Keeps) and food insecurity (Food2Kids) to providing after-school enrichment programs (Chess and Community, Young Designers Program). By working with these organizations, we are creating a collaborative system to help students reach their potential and see beyond their immediate circumstances.

* Recent collaborative efforts with the University of Georgia have resulted in a nationally recognized professional development program in which hundreds of university students and professors work in our local schools, with benefits for teaching and learning at all levels specify what this includes?. This partnership has also resulted in “Experience UGA,” a one-of-a-kind program in which every grade level takes a different field trip to some area of the university every year.  This program allows all Athens kids – from Pre-K students to seniors in high school – to gain exposure to the college experience and see college as a realistic goal if they pursue a post-secondary education. From a young age, many potential first-generation college students see post-secondary education as out of their reach, and this program works to correct that self-imposed feeling of limitation (which our society reinforces in many ways). Exposure can make students excited about the possibility of going to college, and visiting a school in their hometown can make them feel as if college is an option for them if they want to pursue that path. No six-year-old child – or sixteen-year-old, for that matter – should feel that his or her future is predetermined by his or her background.

* The district’s core belief is that all its students can learn and all its schools can be exemplary schools, and its commitment to equity is paramount. For instance, when a decision was made to pursue an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program a few years ago, the application was made for all four middle schools – not just one or two – and for all students. When a successful school gardening/sustainability program was piloted at Clarke Middle School, plans were put in place (and grant funding sought) to implement such a program at all the other local middle schools.

* Working with the nonprofit Athens Land Trust and the University of Georgia, the district has instituted the Young Urban Farmers Program. Through this program, students from both high schools work part-time jobs at the land trust developing entrepreneurship projects, receive credits, and then sell their wares at the weekly farmers market. This program successfully develops work and prudent risk-taking skills and habits not normally taught in a traditional classroom setting.

* The district is a statewide Model Technology District but maintains the core principle that the most important element in the educational equation is the relationship between teacher and student. Technology, used wisely, can enhance the educational experience, but a machine or piece of software is no substitute for a great, engaged teacher.

* One of our high schools works with the University of Georgia and the National College Advising Corps to employ an additional counselor whose primary focus is helping  interested students apply to and attend college.  This program is a “near-peer” model, where recent college graduates help many of our students do what they just did – become the first in their family to go to college. This program seeks to provide college access for students from less advantaged backgrounds, and this initiative  starts in our schools well before the final year of high school.  The community and university are making efforts to expand this program to our other major high school so that all interested students will have this extra help in making post-secondary plans to reach their individual potential;

* With  acclaimed Athens chef and public school parent Hugh Acheson leading the way, the Clarke Count district’s Seed Life Skills program is revamping “home economics” in middle schools, helping Athens young people develop skills that lead to  healthier, more independent and fulfilling lives. Core concepts run the gamut –  from cooking an egg to reading a cell phone contract, sewing a button to signing up for a health plan. The program is another way of equipping kids with pragmatic, contemporary life skills that foster independence;

* A group of high school and university teachers works with un(der)-documented immigrant students on their college aspirations.  Under current Georgia Board of Regents’ policy, many good students,  known as DREAMers,  are forbidden from even applying to our most selective state universities and have to pay international student tuition (up to 4 times what other in-state peers pay) to the other Georgia state schools.

This, of course, effectively forecloses the possibility of further education for many top Athens students (despite high test scores, outstanding high school records, unlimited human potential and plenty of desire to better themselves and their families by going to college). The leaders of ULead Athens counsel and advise these students, conduct mentoring sessions, assist with SAT and ACT prep, and help with financial aid and scholarship application advice. All of these services are geared toward making college a reality for these students from our area.  And thanks to these programs, we have seen some real successes; in recent years, DREAMers from Athens have attended schools all over the state of Georgia and others have received admission and significant financial aid to schools like Emory, Agnes Scott, Berea, Hampshire, Furman, Smith, and Syracuse, among others.


With its driving focus on educating all our people, initiatives like these,  from sustainability programs, to career pathways to community partnerships, Athens public schools continually look for and provide opportunities for all students to thrive. And please bear in mind that all of this is being accomplished in a town with plenty of its own challenges — Athens is believed to have the highest poverty rate among counties in metropolitan areas in the United States. Over 37 percent of children in Clarke County live in poverty, and 49 percent live in single-parent homes. Ethnically, 51 percent of the students are African-American, 23 percent are  Hispanic, 20 percent are white and 2 percent Asian. Over 82 percent of students receive free/reduced lunches, 12 percent of students have English as their second language and 11 percent of students have special needs.

Under Phil Lanoue’s leadership, our schools have shown what a Georgia public school district can accomplish when it is committed to equity and to making new educational opportunities available to all children.    And with such diversity in our schools,  they are the place for shared experiences, which help us all better understand one another, value each other, like each other and be able to work and live in civil society.  Our schools today offer different paths for different students but at the same time they foster that commonality too— better preparing our children for the public world that awaits them on the other side of their formal schooling.

The 2014-15 final issue of The Odyssey, Clarke Central’s student produced news magazine, included a little blurb on a “Star Player” who happened to be my senior daughter, who, among other things, plays tennis.  It was a pleasure to read, and, of course, it made me proud as a parent.  But a few pages away was an extensive article on a junior, also a tennis player, with a very different background and more difficult challenges. He is also thriving in school and planning his college experience with the help of his teachers and counselors at Clarke Central.  Reading his story made me just as happy as reading the story about my own daughter, and it highlighted the promise of public education done right.

People can (and will) interpret our district’s challenges and our responses to those challenges however they want.  Plenty of people look at various shifting numbers and our mostly disadvantaged demographics and might want to label our schools as “failing.” But kids from the Class of 2015 are heading to, among other places, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Columbia, Harvard, University of Chicago, Morehouse, UNC-CH (Morehead Scholarship), Vanderbilt, Washington U, Florida, Cal-Berkeley, Muhlenberg, Wisconsin, Carnegie-Mellon, Dickinson, Smith, Georgia College,  Georgia State, Kenyon, Emory and Clemson (and yes, some of those students are first generation college attendees).  I call that a high-achieving school district in addition to (and in spite of) being high-needs. Clarke Central also won a Breakthrough Award recently for most progress in closing the achievement gap and Clarke Central High School Principal Robbie Hooker was Principal of the Year for Georgia in 2013.

There’s a reason our superintendent is the National Superintendent of the Year – he believes in equity and doing the work to make all our schools thrive, despite the challenges we face. And this approach is working.  Admittedly, it does not work perfectly for 100 percent of the students who enroll in Athens public schools. There is still much work to do – no question. But Dr. Lanoue believes and our district’s core principle is that schools have to do all they can to help close the gaps in opportunity, even when these gaps result from the many structural factors over which he and his schools have no control.

In a perfect world, all Athens kids would come to school each day prepared to learn and go home each day to loving families with healthy stimulation, nourishment and care.  But in reality, many of our students’ best hours of the day are when they are at school.

I am grateful for our local district’s attempts, under the direction of a truly committed and innovative educator, to help meet these students’ needs both within and beyond the schoolhouse. Together, they are working to unlock a lifelong passion for learning.  Is it worth the investment? Yes.  Is it innovative? On many levels, I certainly think so.   I think corporate school reformers ought to come to Athens to see how public education done well can change children’s life trajectories.

I know if won’t fit the “failing schools” narrative  they insist upon,  so I doubt it will happen— but it is real and it is happening right now, not only here but all over the country.  When people walk into a classroom in Athens, they see an all-hands-on-deck effort to educate children from all backgrounds. Our kids are learning together – from their teachers and from each other.  To me, that is true innovation.  It’s not a just a marketing label, an empty description, a headline, or a passing fad.  And surely it will lead to a better Athens years for years to come.