Jim Barrett and Debbie Baker

Jim Barrett and Debbie Baker, president and vice president of the Walker County Association of Educators, say two key issues for the local association this year are the school system’s grading policy and teacher retention. / Dee Decker

A Walker County educators group says it will continue challenging the school system’s controversial grading system; the system’s policy for addressing the school board; and why the system is losing 10-15 percent of its teachers yearly.

“If we see policies that may harm our kids, we want to and need to speak up and address these issues without fear and intimidation,” said Jim Barrett, president of the county’s Association of Educators.

“We have and must use our voice to promote what is good for our kids here,” he said.

Grading policy

Barrett said the school system’s grading policy is seriously flawed.

“We still have tremendous concerns about the grading policy, the grading fiasco,” Barrett said.

The policy, he said, allows students to retake tests or parts of tests if they aren’t satisfied with their grade, he said.

Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said the policy allows students “the opportunity to show me what they know.”

Barrett, further criticizing the policy, said teachers can grade students only on their tests — not homework, class work, and other non-test activities. While students’ performance on these activities is rated on a scale of 1-4, those evaluations do not affect their final grade, Barrett said. Knowing these activities really don’t count can then make students less accountable in doing them, he said.

Debbie Baker, vice president for the association, said students “are taught in high school to be lazy.” The result, she said, is that when they get to college, even some of the best AP (advanced placement) and honors students struggle because they aren’t held accountable in middle and high school.

“If we can’t hold the student accountable for anything outside the classroom,” Baker said, “they don’t have to study outside of the classroom.”

With the lack of total assignment assessment and accountability and the county’s retest policy, often or usually using the same test the student took the first time, Barrett and Baker said the county’s grading policy too often ends up being “Given them a D and set them free.” The current policy, they argue, really hurts the students, their future educational endeavors and their preparation for and performance in their jobs and careers.

Policy for addressing school board

Another ongoing issue that concerns Barrett and his association of county educators is the superintendent’s policy whereby residents could bring concerns and address the county school board.

That policy said a resident must first meet with the superintendent in private, who would then investigate the concerned issue and give the resident a written report within 10 days. If the resident still wanted to address the board, he or she had to submit a request in writing at least a week in advance of the meeting at which they wished to speak.

Barrett filed a lawsuit in 2015 against that policy, saying it violated the First Amendment free speech provision. He won his case in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, and the lawsuit was settled in July 2018. The court ruled the policy unconstitutional, struck down the policy, and ordered Superintendent Damon Raines to rewrite its policy. To date, Barrett said no replacement policy has been implemented.

Barrett had tried to meet with Raines in May and August 2014 about the new grading policy. He then emailed Raines Jan. 20, 2015, asking to speak at the next school board meeting. Raines met with Barrett on Jan. 28, 2015, at which time Barrett gave the superintendent his concerns about the new policy in writing. On Feb. 9, 2015, Raines gave Barrett a written response to the issues Barrett had raised.

Barrett then asked for and sent a letter that day requesting to speak before the board at its Feb. 17, 2015, meeting. Raines said he did not receive the letter until Feb. 11, less than a week before the board meeting, and therefore rejected Barrett’s request to speak. Raines later offered to let Barrett speak at the March 10 school board meeting, but by then Barrett had contacted lawyers and was in the process of filing a “freedom of speech” lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy wrote in his ruling in the case on April 4, 2016, that the board’s policies were “facially unconstitutional” in that the policy should guarantee people the chance to speak in a timely manner and that the school system should not try to prevent residents from criticizing school employees. Murphy said that everyone, and especially teachers, should be able to talk directly to their school board about issues of public concern to them and to their students. The judge also granted an injunction against Raines and the school district policy and told the board to revise its policy and procedure appropriately.

The board appealed Murphy’s decision, and on Oct. 2, 2017, a three justice panel for the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Murphy’s ruling.

Teacher retention

On the matter of teacher attrition, Barrett said the county is losing 100-150 teachers yearly.

That is up to 15 percent of the county’s 1,000-plus teacher base each year, he said.

The county has lost about 50% of its teaching force in the last five years, he said.

Questions that need to be examined and answered, the association maintains, are: Where are these teachers going? Why are they leaving the Walker County school system?

Other priorities

Barrett said his organization also has concerns regarding school-sponsored fundraisers. Barrett said he and his members have been getting more phone calls about the schools’ fundraising and fundraisers policy than anything else. Thus, the association will be examining that policy carefully this year.

Barrett said another issue is leadership development within the organization, within schools and within buildings.

“Leadership is the responsibility of everyone,” he said.

School children especially need to see and have strong leadership since many do not have it in their homes, families and neighborhoods. Teachers, therefore, have both the opportunity and responsibility to be strong leaders and role models for their students, echoed Baker.

Related to leadership is professional development, where each teacher learns and grows throughout the school year. And as they become stronger and better teachers, their students become stronger and better students.

An additional concern and goal for the teachers is to encourage and see greater public interest and involvement. This can take the form of being a substitute teacher or substitute bus driver, or being a volunteer in a classroom or for a class field trip. Involvement also includes attending parental meeting, PTO meetings, and even county school board meetings. The more parents are informed, knowledgeable, and involved, the better students their children will be. The more interest parents have in their children’s educational process and progress, usually the more interested and committed their children are to their education.

Dee Decker is editorial assistant and reporter for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga, and for the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

editorial assitant/reporter