Guest Blog by Dr. Jim Arnold
Gordon County is in the northwest corner of Georgia, and the city of Calhoun, the county seat, is along the banks of the Oostanaula River where it joins Oothcalooga Creek. Until 1835, Calhoun was part of the Cherokee Nation, and the area retains many Native American names as part of its geography. Highway 41 passes through the center of town and I-75 on the eastern edge, leading to Chattanooga 40 miles north and Atlanta 68 miles south. The county has grown from a population of a little over 44,000 people in the 2000 census to over 55,000 in 2010. Calhoun’s population in 2010 was recorded as a little over 16,000 people, and has seen rapid growth in population and commerce over the past decade. Calhoun City Schools serve a student population of around 4,000, including 54% white, 35% Hispanic, 6% black and 5% multiracial, Asian or Native American. The free/reduced lunch percentages have increased gradually to their current level of 62%, and non-resident students that live outside the district account for 23% of the student totals.
Dr. Michele Taylor has served Calhoun City Schools as Superintendent for the past 10 years. She graduated from Calhoun City Schools in 1986, and after graduation from Shorter College with a degree in Early Childhood Education began her career in the Calhoun City system as a classroom teacher. Michele served successive roles in the system as a media specialist, Principal and Assistant Superintendent. Community service and involvement play a key role in her success as an educational leader, and she is past president of the Calhoun- Gordon Council for a Literate Community, former member of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, United Way Allocations Panel, formerly a member of Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board, Gordon Calhoun Arts Council, Past President of Kiwanis, Chair of the Leadership Calhoun/Gordon County Steering Committee, Past President Executive Board of the Georgia School Superintendents’ Association and a member of the Calhoun Rotary Club. She is also the Governor's appointee of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission. It would be safe to say that Dr. Taylor models the community involvement behaviors she expects to see in others.
Michele notes that stakeholder involvement is not just a phrase used in her schools, and that 100% parent attendance at parent/teacher conferences is not only expected but achieved year after year. “If our parents can’t come to us, we go to them. Our rich educational tradition is a result of a commitment to excellence and a community spirit that rests on the pulse of our city’s existence. What we have would not be possible without the involvement and support of the entire community. Our people are what makes us special. We also recognize that we have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged families, and that education cannot be a high priority until basic needs are met. We have focused efforts to provide wrap around services, additional counseling and social worker support for our families.”
When asked about developing leaders, Dr. Taylor said “we believe in growing our own administrators. We invest time to develop talent and build capacity throughout the system. Mentoring and holding all accountable for the highest expectations have been key in maintaining strong leadership teams. PAGE leadership development programs and our RESA Principals’ Academy have provided a wonderful level of support. We also have job embedded mentoring and learning programs that allow teachers to develop leadership skills over time without leaving the classroom. Our low teacher turnover rates attest to our success in building relationships at every level. We provide mentoring and support for every teacher and also for our students. Our positive school cultures provide an attractive place for teachers and students to work and learn.”
Calhoun City Schools also believes in developing student leadership. “Advocacy and citizenship are important for students and for teachers” said Dr. Taylor. “Promoting a sense of ownership in the decision-making process is done by supporting School Governance Teams and school and district leadership teams. We have student and teacher mentoring programs and an advisement program for students. My cabinet level leadership and I meet with teachers and staff at each school several times a year in ‘Fireside Chats’ with an open agenda to talk and share. Principals also follow this example several times throughout the school year to get to know the staff and students better and to promote stronger relationships.”
Dr. Taylor also remarked “we have moved away from intensive test prep and testing rallies, but we still lose 20-30 days of instruction each year to mandated testing windows. Because of that the pace of instruction is significantly increased, and we might not cover everything we would like to cover over the course of a school year, but what we do cover we try to make sure students know it well before moving on. We use data to drive instruction, but more often than not use student data and not testing data in engaging our community as part of our Community Based Accountability System. We believe what we do should be driven by the needs of children and not necessarily testing data.”
Continuous improvement efforts are geared toward far more than just a test score. “Success is more than a test score,” said Dr. Taylor, “and the measurement of success cannot be summed up so simply. Calhoun City was recently named Charter System of the Year, in 2016 our graduation rate was fourth highest in Georgia (97.8% - up from 67% in 2003), our students have won 21 GHSA state championships over the last decade, we were awarded AP Honor School status and have numerous awards on the stage for arts and music. The judgements from end of year test scores are asked to represent the entire school system in terms of quality, but have surprisingly limited amounts of interpretive data that never include school quality or measure how we serve our community. Judgements of quality must be made, but must be made on evidence capable of rendering that judgement. Every day is an opportunity to make a difference in the life of our students. We are preparing them for life, and we need our community to help us get it right.” She also noted that “time and money currently spent on an inordinate amount of testing that provides limited information could be spent on experiences that enhance learning. The administration of testing, the loss of instructional time, pulling staff from other areas to cover small group testing are all costs - direct and indirect - to the district.”
Student engagement and involvement are key to Calhoun City’s success. “Engaged students are attentive, persistent and committed. When engaged in learning, students value and find meaning in the work and learn to their full potential. I learned this in the 8th grade from my social studies teacher Mrs. Sherry Campbell” said Dr. Taylor. “Her classroom had rituals and routines, and she believed in us more than we believed in ourselves. We knew we had to listen and prepare and be able to share with others what we had learned. Her lessons were relevant and engaging before engagement was a goal. After I graduated from college I began to see the time and effort and planning that went into her lessons. To this day I can visualize the lesson she presented on the Alamo. She was and is an inspiration.”
In September 2017 CCS hosted a luncheon in the new STEM Works Engineering Learning Lab and Online Learning Academy on the Calhoun College and Career Academy Campus at Calhoun High School. Business partners, community leaders, parents and partners in education gathered to get a first look at the new learning facility. “We believe” Dr. Taylor told the group “community based accountability systems created by local stakeholders provide the most meaningful accountability there is. Our quest to develop such a system to measure quality in all areas of education begins today. Our system will continue to encourage and promote student learning at profound levels as opposed to simply learning what is needed to pass standardized tests. Our mission to inspire all students to become lifelong learners in the pursuit of excellence will be measured by many indicators of success as identified by our community and not a testing company.” She also told the audience “standardized testing does not provide the data that policymakers and others think it does. Testing constructs are designed to find an average that does not exist in the real world of children and learning, and multiple studies confirm that only one third of testing results can be attributed to school influence. We want our entire community to be a part of creating the evaluation systemthat measures the things our community thinks are important and not what a single test says.”
Calhoun Mayor James Palmer and the City Council shared “Some basic qualities of true leadership are intelligence, honesty, vision, work ethic and charisma. Dr. Taylor has those and more. Everyone on the City Council has been in meetings, work sessions, committees and other business activities where Dr. Taylor was present. People respect her ideas, her work ethic and her grasp of the issues. She never projects negatives. When one leaves her meetings it’s with a positive frame of mind. We know the question, issue or challenge will be solved, if by no other means than her will to make it work. Dr. Taylor is leading us into the 21st century. Without a doubt the projects, advancements, standards of achievement and community support for our school system will be viewed in hindsight as an historical benchmark when Dr. Taylor’s tenure is complete.” For the students, parents and community of Calhoun, may that day be long in coming.