State Department of Education to pilot new teacher evaluation system

ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Education (DOE) Wednesday announced a pilot project to test a new method for evaluating teacher performance.  

The new program will be called GaLEADS. It will be tried in a dozen Georgia school districts beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. Districts will be able to apply to participate in the pilot beginning Thursday.

“I am fully committed to developing a teacher evaluation model that treats teachers as professionals and helps them succeed throughout their careers, to the benefit of students – rather than a punitive ‘gotcha’ system,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods.  

“This pilot is an opportunity for proof of concept and will allow us to work with school districts throughout the state to create an evaluation system that’s designed for teacher growth.”

The DOE recently published a report exploring the reasons for teacher burnout in Georgia. Teachers said they face unrealistic performance expectations, especially given the learning disruption caused by the COVID pandemic.  

“Coming out of the pandemic, the desire to ‘return to normal’ has also come with an unrealistic expectation … without giving teachers the time, support, resources, and compassion to meet students at their current level,” the report said

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) agreed that the new pilot could help address teachers’ concerns about the evaluation system.

“PAGE is encouraged by the announced teacher evaluation pilot,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative services for the organization.  

Data from a 2021 statewide survey indicated that 45% of educators felt supervisor feedback under the current system was not helpful to their instructional practices, Ciccarelli said.

“A more effective Georgia educator evaluation system will better serve students by supporting teachers at every stage of their career, recognizing that the coaching needs of beginning teachers differ from the needs of skilled veteran educators,” she said.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, called for increased teacher involvement in revamping the state’s teacher-evaluation program.

“Classroom teachers are the experts and must be the principal voices speaking to the necessary supports available for themselves and their colleagues,” she said. “We look forward to working with the department to ensure that current classroom educators are involved throughout the process.” 

Republican Woods was first elected state school superintendent in 2014. He is running for a third term against Democrat Alisha Thomas Searcy.  

Searcy hit back at Wednesday’s announcement about the new teacher-evaluation program, calling it an election gimmick with questionable timing.  

“Why is the current state superintendent, who has been in office for almost eight years, deciding that now, 69 days before the election, he wants to make teacher evaluations a priority?” Searcy asked. “This has been a concern for teachers for at least eight years.”

Searcy said teachers should be involved in revamping the teacher-evaluation process.  

“Educators, students, and parents deserve a state school superintendent who is a collaborator and who seeks the feedback of teachers,” she said.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia lawmakers may help fund new approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder

ATLANTA – Two Georgia veterans lent their support this week to the use of the psychedelic drug psilocybin in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Following multiple combat deployments, Ethan Whitfield and Marcus Capone traveled outside of the U.S. for counseling and treatment of their PTSD with psilocybin after standard drugs failed to treat their severe depression. Both reported instant results following just one “dosing” session.

“My negative thought patterns and my self-destructive habits of thought changed overnight,” Whitfield told members of the Georgia House Defense & Veterans Affairs Committee Tuesday.

“I’m experiencing a new way of dealing with stresses in my life. I still experience anger, sadness, anxiety, [and] negativity. But they don’t imprison me.”

“I still go through days of depression or anger,” added Capone, co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS). “But now, they only last an hour. I’m able to climb out of them quite quickly.”

Whitfield and Capone testified during a hearing the committee called to explore the possibility of the state helping to fund a proposed Emory University study of psilocybin to treat PTSD in veterans.

Boadie Dunlop, medical director of Emory University’s Health Care Veterans Program, cited studies that have demonstrated the efficacy of psilocybin – known colloquially for decades as “magic mushrooms” – in treating major depressive disorder.

“It induces a state of mental change where one reevaluates one’s experience of the world, one’s connectedness to oneself and others … breaking people out of past patterns of thought,” said Dunlop, who also heads the newly created Center for Psychedelics and Spirituality at Emory.

Dunlop said none of the studies conducted with psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs thus far has focused on veterans, something he hopes to remedy. He said he is working to raise $1.85 million to conduct such a study.

Dunlop said psilocybin is not addictive. In fact, patients treated with the drug are able to kick addictions to the habit-forming drugs typically used to treat depression, he said.

He cited three instances where female patients have stayed off anti-depressants for a year after a single dose of psilocybin.

Both Whitfield and Capone said they stopped drinking immediately after being treated with psilocybin.

Dunlop cautioned that treatment with psilocybin must be done in a clinical setting with trained counselors in order for patients to feel safe using the drug.

Haley Zagoria, a graduate student at the University of Georgia working on a master’s degree in public health, told the committee people who experienced “bad trips” using psilocybin generally took the drug on their own with no therapeutic support.

“Even though people have abused this recreationally … this is a discussion we need to have,” said Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, the committee’s chairman.

“For people who served their country and suffered dramatically for that, we ought to do everything we can to make sure those people have an opportunity to be normalized in some fashion.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

UGA places 10th in national ranking of public universities

The Arch at the University of Georgia

ATLANTA – The University of Georgia is ranked 10th on a new list of top public colleges and universities in the country.

The list, released by the rankings platform Niche this week, rates more than 500 schools based on academic, admissions, financial, and student life data from the U.S. Department of Education.

UGA scored high marks for academics, value, diversity, and athletics.

“Niche’s ranking affirms that the University of Georgia is a powerhouse in both academics and athletics,” UGA President Jere Morehead said.

“We have made significant strides in recent years through strategic investments in faculty hires, new and renovated research space, as well as continued enhancements to the quality of the living and learning experience for undergraduates. Those investments are paying off, helping our students to maximize the value of their UGA degrees.”

UGA boasts a retention rate – the percentage of students returning for their second year of studies – of 95%.

Seventy-two percent of students complete their degrees within four years, while 88% finish within six years.

UGA also welcomed its largest and one of its most academically qualified freshman classes for the fall semester. More than 6,200 new first-year students started classes two weeks ago, selected from a record number of 40,000 applicants.

The incoming class averaged a 4.12 high-school grade point average while posting an average SAT score of 1,384 and average ACT score of 32.

The top public university on the Niche list this year was UCLA. The University of Florida is the only other Southeastern Conference school in the top 10, which also included the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and Georgia Tech.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp announces $250 million for parks and recreation in low-income communities

ATLANTA—Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday he is allocating around $250 million to help low-income Georgia communities improve parks, sidewalks, recreation facilities, and healthy food access.

A statement from the governor’s office said investment in infrastructure like parks and sidewalks has been connected to better health and decreased mortality from COVID and other illnesses.

“Though we have long since turned the corner on the pandemic, we know there are still some lingering public health impacts of Covid-19 that are broader than the disease itself,” Kemp said. “They include mental health challenges and unhealthy physical conditions caused by isolation.”

Kemp said keeping parks and recreation facilities open during the COVID pandemic allowed Georgians to continue to exercise and get fresh air .

“We were met with resistance at times on this approach, but we prevailed in giving both Georgians and numerous out-of-state visitors safe options,” Kemp said.

“By carefully investing these funds, we’re helping communities further move past the effects of the pandemic and become healthier.”

The $250 million will be awarded through a grant program. Local and county governments as well as non-profits can apply. The projects must be located in low-income communities.

Each approved project will be eligible to receive up to $2 million. Applications will be accepted from Sept. 1 to Nov. 18 and a virtual applicant workshop will be held on Sept. 6. More information about applying can be found on the program’s website.  

The money comes from federal COVID relief funds provided to the state under the American Rescue Plan Act.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Economist: Georgia farmers struggling with national, global challenges

PERRY – Georgia’s rural economy is being buffeted by national and global headwinds that are making it harder for farmers to make ends meet, an agricultural economist said Tuesday.

Supply chain disruptions, trade wars, droughts across the globe, the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine are challenging farmers on multiple fronts, Gopi Munisamy, an agricultural marketing professor at the University of Georgia, told an audience of farm industry and political leaders during a summit on ag issues at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter.

Not to mention inflation, which is driving up the cost of farm inputs including fertilizer, seeds and diesel fuel.

“All those have gone up exponentially,” said state Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Despite the challenges, agriculture remains Georgia’s No.-1 industry, responsible for $12.2 billion a year in “farm gate value” – the market value of farm products minus the selling costs – and more than 350,000 jobs, Munisamy said.

While specific numbers for Georgia haven’t been updated since 2020, Munisamy said net farm income in the Peach State is down this year compared with 2021.

The impact is not being felt evenly across farm products. While Munisamy described the short- and long-term outlook for broilers as positive and the forecast for peanuts as stable, he said fruit-and-vegetable growers are seeing near- and long-term challenges.

The Inflation Reduction Act recently passed by Congress includes $13.3 billion in rural development aid and $6 billion in assistance for farmers with federal loans.

Walker said state-level solutions to the economic problems facing farmers are limited because the challenges are national and global.

However, he said consumers buying more Georgia-grown farm products would help reduce the state’s reliance on overseas imports.

“Supporting Georgia-grown is in our best interests,” he said. “We may have to pay more for food, but we’ll be better off in the long run.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.