By Martha Dalton • Oct. 11, 2017


There’s been a lot of talk in Georgia political circles about ‘turning around’ low-performing schools. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed ‘The First Priority Act,’ a plan meant to help those schools improve.

WABE's education reporter Martha Dalton spent two weeks at an elementary school in South Dekalb county learning what it takes for a school to be successful when its students are hampered by poverty and instability. Making The Grade

  Most Flat Shoals Elementary students come from poor households. The neighborhood is transient, meaning families tend to move a lot. The school has a 54.5 percent churn rate, meaning more than half of the students who start the school year there will leave at some point during the year. The children at Flat Shoals face problems that come with being born into poverty. Some are hungry. Some can’t read well. Others may struggle with some kind of trauma. “It is really hard on our babies when they come in here to just focus in class,” says school counselor Tina Johnson. “If we could just get them to focus, settle down, clear your mind, you know. A lot of abuse is going on, parental disagreements and that kind of thing.”

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Nonetheless, teachers at Flat Shoals are determined to help their students learn. They carefully plan lessons to meet the needs of all of their kids. That usually means ‘differentiating’ their instruction to teach children on different levels. Some teachers collaborate. A first-grade student who is ahead of his class in reading may join a second grade class for that subject. The same is true for students who are behind. A second-grade student who struggles in reading may go to a first-grade class for that period. What drives these teachers to work as hard as they do? They give some credit to their principal, Lacoundas Freeman. Flat Shoals teachers say Freeman has changed the school’s climate. She lets teachers know they’re supported. “The environment that she creates in the building, the environment of being a supportive administrator, that goes a long way, and it shows in how we support each other,” says first-grade teacher Alta Walker.

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  Research shows, next to having strong teachers, having an effective principal is the most important factor in determining a school’s success. Freeman knows she can’t do it alone. So, she has recruited people from the community to help. Flat Shoals has a support group for grandparents who are raising their grandkids. Several of those grandparents volunteer at the school. There’s also a monthly ‘Dads’ breakfast’ for fathers. Before the school year began, community partners helped put on a ‘Back to School Bash,’ where children received free backpacks, school supplies, and food. Six local churches have adopted the school. There’s also a monthly ‘Dads’ breakfast’ for fathers. Before the school year began, community partners helped put on a ‘Back to School Bash,’ where children received free backpacks, school supplies, and food. Six local churches have adopted the school. Flat Shoals’ test scores improved last year. But teachers and administrators know they need to sustain that momentum. It’s a challenge Flat Shoals teachers seem willing to accept.

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Photos taken by Ian Palmer and designed by Ankita Ackroyd-Isales.