Published Tuesday, November 13, 2012
BY BILL BARROW
ATLANTA (AP) – Georgians often bemoan the quality of their public schools. But state Superintendent John Barge, fresh off a defeat in a debate over expanding charter schools, wants to change public perception.
Taking a cue from corporate America, the state Department of Education on Tuesday will launch a marketing campaign titled "Georgia's Future. Now!"
The campaign comes with Georgia still trailing the national average in many standardized test measures, while Atlanta schools continue under the shadow of alleged cheating on those same tests in recent years. And Barge continues to face questions about his leadership from some of his fellow Republicans.
Those realities, the superintendent said, require an aggressive response.
"A lot of folks don't know the good things going on because we historically don't do a good job telling them about it," Barge said.
The effort, which Barge will announce Tuesday at a Buford school, includes old-fashioned outreach: printed literature, knickknacks with a logo, a speaker's bureau of teachers to address community groups. If enough private money is raised, it also will feature a Web TV comedy series - with hopes of the show being broadcast on Georgia Public Television - titled "Modern Teacher." Styled after the television series "Modern Family," it depicts life in a Georgia school. Producers have developed a trailer, but not yet filmed full episodes.
Target audiences are rank-and-file teachers, parents, legislators, business leaders and taxpayers.
The program will explain, among other details, new curricula and changes in teacher evaluations. Many of the changes dovetail with Georgia's participation in the federal Race to the Top grant program.
The campaign also will highlight that Georgia is the only state this year where students have increased their average ACT and SAT scores for college entry; the number of AP college credits earned; and the math, reading and science portions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.
The department has spent about $60,000 in public funds so far, most of it paid to Voss & Associates of Florida.
Barge's staff and consultant David Voss have shared details, including the "Modern Teacher" trailer, with several outside groups.
"I've been one who has been complaining for years that there is a lack of clear messaging from the system," said Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a group heavy on business leaders.
Yet among top elected officials, Barge appears to be going about it largely alone. Senate Education Chairman Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said "the concept is good," but he questioned Barge's timing so soon after voters overruled the superintendent on charter schools.
Barge angered many of his fellow Republicans, including Gov. Nathan Deal, with his opposition to the constitutional amendment that affirms state power to create charter schools.
Millar said he was unaware of the Tuesday unveiling and noted that it occurs at the same time Dolinger's group meets in Atlanta. Millar will be with Dolinger, as will many of the business leaders that could help fund "Modern Teacher."
"That tells you all you need to know," Millar said. "I'm trying to mend a lot of fences in spite of this guy. Sometimes it's hard to tell what he's thinking."
Barge aides said Deal's office is aware of the program. But no one from the governor's office will be part of the Tuesday event.
Still, Barge got some support from a recent opponent. Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the charter amendment campaign, said this kind of effort is "definitely needed."
Brantley, who worked for Gov. Sonny Perdue, recalled the difficulty of navigating what voters and outsiders think about schools. "They are certainly better than people think they are," he said.
Brantley said political campaigns can be a double-edged sword. "A lot of governors, superintendents and legislators have run on a platform of `improving schools,'" he said. "The perception has been built up over a lot of years."
The next step is for Barge to raise money to send "Modern Teacher" into full production. Dolinger said his board members - executives from top firms like Georgia Power, Lockheed Martin and AT&T - are receptive to the program. As for underwriting it, he said, "they're taking a wait-and-see approach."
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