EAST COBB — Gov. Brian Kemp chose Wheeler High School as the stage for Thursday’s signing of eight education bills into law, including a bill that advocacy groups say will substantially improve success in students with dyslexia.

The governor also signed a bill requiring the introduction of required computer science curriculum in the state, among others.

Advocates: Dyslexic students to see improvement in ‘essential support’

A crowd from dyslexia awareness organizations as well as Marietta and Cobb students and their parents applauded as Kemp signed Senate Bill 48.

Kemp’s signature on the bill will, among other things, define dyslexia in Georgia code and phase in required screening for all kindergarten students and some first through third grade students, according to state advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Georgia. Schools had not previously been required to screen students.

Kemp said the bill will help to detect the learning disability early in a student’s school career, which “can make a huge impact on a student’s life and their longtime educational success.”

Tina Engberg, who heads Georgia’s branch of Decoding Dyslexia, said the bill will fundamentally change outcomes for many students with dyslexia, identifying the learning disability in students before they begin to fall behind their peers.

“Today, the 1 in 5 students who are dyslexic saw Georgia take a step in the right direction to ... provide kindergarten screening and train our future teachers. We all agree that it is absolutely essential for all students in Georgia to learn to read, and we are one step closer to that being a reality,” Engberg said.

Engberg said the bill will mandate the creation of a dyslexia handbook by the Georgia Department of Education, giving educators a uniform understanding of the disorder and its characteristics. It will also fund a three-year pilot program in three school districts, offering teacher training in “structured literacy practices” and metrics in reading skill improvements. She said evidence of cost savings using the improved teaching methodology will also be a byproduct.

Cobb school board Chairman David Chastain called the bill “a step in the right direction.” Chastain said early screening will help catch the learning disability, which is often diagnosed around third grade, before it damages the student’s critical reading skills.

“This is a good step that moves us forward in being able to assess who is having reading difficulties and then to be able to rally the resources that are needed to help support them,” he said.

Chris Ragsdale, superintendent of Cobb schools, said he does not yet know if the district will submit a proposal for the pilot program as final details are still being considered.

Jason Waters, chair of the Marietta school board, said the new support for students and attention to dyslexia will benefit the entire state. He said the bill reinforces decisions Marietta City Schools have already been making.

“We have been a leader in investing in dyslexia (training) to begin with. We had already trained a lot of our teachers, so it’s something the board and the superintendent are passionate about. So we’d love to be a (member of) the pilot program,” Waters said.

Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera echoed Waters, adding that he reached out to the Department of Education to find out how to apply for the program and was told the details are still being worked out.

“We are patiently waiting and eager to jump on board,” Rivera said.

The bill indicates the state school superintendent will select the three school districts to participate.

Computer science curriculum could strengthen Georgia’s business reputation

Gov. Kemp also signed Senate Bill 108, which will phase in a required computer science curriculum in middle and high schools statewide.

According to Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, only 0.5% of Georgia students currently complete a computer science course as part of their high school curriculum.

“This is a big issue for our state,” Kemp said. “To maintain Georgia’s ranking as a top state for business and to continue to foster job growth in our state’s top industry.”

Kemp said the bill will help to prepare students for modern, high-demand and high-paying jobs.

Duncan said the legislation allows school districts to phase in the computer science programs, as well as use online proctors to teach the curriculum. This “virtual proctoring” is to ensure school systems are not “over-burdened” by a need to hire more teachers.

The bill includes state budget funds for training and course administration.

Duncan has maintained the passage and signing of the computer science curriculum bill will help to accomplish his goal of making Georgia the “technology capital of the entire east coast.”

Ragsdale, who said he has a particular passion for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, said the bill will be important for the development of student interest in technology and computer science.

“All the kids use technology today, but not a lot of them think about it (as) a great career and a high-paying career,” he said.

Ragsdale said the district was an “early adopter” of STEM curriculum, and has led the state in the offerings. Ragsdale called Wheeler High School, which he said boasts the No. 2 STEM program in the nation, the “ideal backdrop” for the signing of the computer science bill.

Belinda Walters-Brazile, deputy superintendent of Marietta schools, said the district currently offers computer science courses at its high schools and middle schools. She said when the district opens its college and career academy in January, it will look to expand computer science programs in the areas of cybersecurity and information technology.

The governor also signed:

♦ House Bill 12: Requires public schools to post signage including the phone number for the Division of Family and Children Services to receive reports of child abuse or neglect;

♦ House Bill 68: Prohibits any entity providing elementary or secondary school accreditation from being eligible to be a student scholarship organization;

♦ House Bill 130: Allows the Georgia Foundation for Public Education to incorporate as a nonprofit organization;

♦ House Bill 218: Extends HOPE scholarship eligibility from seven to 10 years after high school graduation;

♦ House Bill 527: The state Legislature added more money to the 2020 education budget. As a result, lawmakers had to revise the Quality Basic Education formula, which dictates how money is allocated throughout the state education system.

♦ Senate Bill 60: Develops policies and materials to raise awareness and educate students participating in school sports about sudden cardiac arrest.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas