Colleges get creative to address Georgia’s workforce shortage 

ATLANTA – With Georgia facing a serious shortage of workers in key industries, the state’s higher education institutions are finding creative solutions to attract, retain and graduate more skilled workers.  

The challenge has been compounded by the lingering effects of pandemic-era learning loss, said Timothy Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University (GSU). 

At GSU, the percentage of students who fail classes has increased since the pandemic, Renick said Thursday during a forum hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.  

“We’re facing a generation of students, even the success stories who made it into college, who potentially will be much more vulnerable for proceeding and getting their degree,” he said.  

Despite the challenges, Georgia State has made a serious commitment to student success that has resulted in improved graduation rates.  

GSU invested in predictive analytics about a decade ago, Renick said, and uses the data to track hundreds of markers of student success. When a student is identified as potentially struggling, the university reaches out to the student to provide support.  

It also deployed an artificial intelligence (AI) platform in 2016 to answer student questions. Renick said within the first three months, students engaged with the program 180,000 times, often at night when it typically would be difficult to connect with university staff.  

“What we’ve been able to do with some of these new technologies is at least come closer to leveling the playing field to deliver personalized attention to students at scale on a day-to-day basis,” he said.  

Georgia State also pioneered the use of retention grants, scholarships that are automatically provided to students who are close to graduating but whose HOPE scholarships have ended.  

“We know which students are making good progress and are close to graduating,” Renick said. “So we started just putting the money in their account.”  

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation replicating that program across the state.

Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success is now serving as a consultant to 42 other colleges and universities to help them develop systematic approaches to preventing students from dropping out of college. 

Like Georgia State, Gordon State College has sought to create wraparound solutions to help students graduate. The college has campuses in Barnesville, McDonough and Griffin. 

College leaders recognized the area faced a nursing shortage and entered into a partnership with the Henry County school system and Piedmont Henry Hospital to try to address the problem.  

“We got into a room and we said, ‘Let us build a pipeline that would, one, reduce the cost of a degree, two, accelerate the time to degree and, three, add a layer of stickiness … to keep the final worker local,” Gordon State President Kirk Nooks said. 

The resulting Community Innovation Partnership Program allows Henry County students to dual enroll at Gordon State and graduate with an associate degree in nursing at the same time they graduate from high school.  

Five students who complete their associate degree will also be offered guaranteed admission to Gordon State’s nursing program. Gordon State also offers scholarship support to students along the way so that financial barriers don’t prevent students from finishing their degrees.  

After students earn their associate degree, they can start working at the hospital and take advantage of employee tuition-reimbursement programs while they earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Gordon State, Nooks added.

“If everything goes according to plan, that student now becomes an employee full time and the stickiness factor is there,” he said.  

Georgia school districts and colleges should team up to develop strategic plans to get more students into higher educational institutions and the workforce in the way that Gordon State and Henry County schools worked together on the nursing program, Nooks said. 

Columbus Technical College has focused on accelerating students’ time to completion and created a plethora of options to meet working students’ needs.  

About three-quarters of Columbus Tech’s students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and the average student age is 25, President Martha Ann Todd said.

“Our students are for the most part older students, many of them supporting families or supporting themselves,” she said. “So we want to make it as easy as possible for our students to get quality training, the skills that they need, and go to work as quickly as possible.” 

Todd said that going forward, Columbus Tech will be working with local employers to shorten timeframes even further.  

For example, the college has developed a one-semester program to train certified nursing assistants and plans to develop an even shorter, four-week program.  

Columbus Tech has also developed a one-semester program to train child development associates to help meet the state’s child-care shortage. The program offers grants to people enrolled through a partnership with the Georgia Department Early Care and Learning.  

The college recently rolled out micro-credential badges that allow students to prove their proficiency in a specific skill. These have been very popular with both students and employers, Todd said.  

Todd said she would like to see other technical colleges replicate Columbus’ micro-credentialing programs as well as its “quick-start” approach to training.  

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

Georgia’s Medicaid redetermination process gets rolling 

Georgia has created an ad campaign created to raise awareness about the Medicaid eligibility redetermination process that started this month. (Credit: Georgia Department of Human Services/Department of Community Health)

ATLANTA – The complex process of reassessing Georgians’ eligibility for Medicaid has started.  

COVID-era Medicaid regulations prevented anyone enrolled in Medicaid from being disenrolled during the public health emergency.  

But those pandemic-era regulations ended at the start of this month, and Georgia will now have to determine which Medicaid members remain eligible for coverage.  

In Georgia, children from low-income families as well as pregnant women are eligible for Medicaid. The state also provides Medicaid to new mothers for up to 12 months after delivery. Some very low-income adults as well as aged, blind and certain disabled populations are also eligible.  

Prior to the pandemic, Georgians enrolled in Medicaid had their eligibility checked yearly. But all of those eligibility checks were put on pause for several years.  

That meant that teenagers who typically would have aged out of the program or new mothers whose pregnancy-related Medicaid would have expired remained on the rolls.  

The state estimates that about half a million Georgians were newly enrolled in Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids during the pandemic. The total number of Medicaid enrollees is now about 2.7 million, about one-fourth of the state’s population.  

Each of those members will need to have their eligibility redetermined, a heavy lift for the state.  

The Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH), which oversees the state Medicaid program, is partnering with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to manage the process.  

With the redetermination process expected to take more than a year, the fiscal 2023 mid-year budget includes funding to hire 450 case managers to manage the process at DHS.  

The agency also plans to install self-service kiosks in more than 400 public library locations.

The state has developed a marketing campaign — represented by the “George A. Peach” mascot — to help Georgians learn more about the new process. Materials are currently available in Spanish, Burmese, Korean, Nepali, Portuguese, and Vietnamese as well as English.  

“I have seen the state agencies, both DCH and DHS, come forward with really good faith efforts to plan as best they can,” said Laura Colbert, executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future.  

“The trickiest part of this seems to be maybe staffing for both DHS and DCH … hiring enough Medicaid eligibility workers. Making sure they are trained properly and prepared to do that job over the next 12 to 14 months is going to be very difficult in this work and labor environment.”

State budget hearings earlier this year highlighted the labor shortages and high turnover rates most state agencies face. 

Many adults will lose coverage because Georgia is one of 10 states that have not fully expanded Medicaid, Colbert said.  

Some children also may lose coverage because of the complexity of the bureaucratic process, she added.  

“Some folks are going to be ineligible for Medicaid and not eligible for anything else,” Colbert said. “We will see very large coverage losses.”  

Other adults who lose coverage may be able to enroll in Affordable Care Act plans available on the marketplace. Those who lose coverage will be able to apply for plans as early as 60 days before their Medicaid/PeachCare coverage ends and up until July 31, 2024.  

However, only those Georgians who earn 100% or more of the federal poverty level ($13,590 for a single person) will qualify.  

Those who earn less than the federal poverty level will be able to seek coverage through a new Georgia program, called Georgia Pathways, that launches on July 1.  

Under that program, Georgians who work, volunteer, or enroll in educational programs for at least 80 hours per week can also qualify for the state Medicaid program. Estimates of how many people will be eligible for that program vary.  

“There may be upwards of 200,000 members already on Medicaid that would qualify for [Pathways],” DCH Commissioner Caylee Noggle told lawmakers in January. “They will be transitioned to that [program] during their eligibility redetermination if they’re eligible.” 

But the number could be much lower, said Colbert of Georgians for a Healthy Future.  

“It’s likely then that fewer than 100,000 folks are going to gain coverage because of really difficult bureaucratic work requirements and premiums that are not standard for the Medicaid program,” Colbert said this week.  

Officials recommend several steps for Georgians who are enrolled in Medicaid or PeachCare for Kids.  

They should ensure that their contact information is up to date using the state’s online Gateway portal, in person at local offices or by phone at 1-877-GA-DHS-GO. That way, people will be sure to receive redetermination notices.  

Next, Georgians should keep their eyes open for a redetermination notice. People will receive the notices either by email or traditional mail about 45 days before their deadline. The notices will include instructions for submitting updated income information (including pay stubs) and other details.  

People concerned they will lose Medicaid coverage can start familiarizing themselves with the plans offered on to help ensure a smooth transition. 

Those who are determined to be ineligible for Medicaid will have 30 days to appeal that decision.  

Colbert noted that the process has only been underway for less than a month, so it’s difficult to pinpoint trouble spots.  

“We are hearing some people think that it’s disinformation or that it’s a scam, that it’s an effort for some unknown actor to try to get people’s personal information,” Colbert said. “It’s more important than ever that Georgians really understand the importance and the impact of Medicaid.” 

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

The science of reading undergirds Georgia’s new literacy-education laws 

ATLANTA – Georgia is gearing up to implement a new approach to teaching reading in the early grades.  

Gov. Brian Kemp recently signed into law two literacy bills passed during this year’s legislative session.  

About 36% of Georgia third graders read below grade level, according to the state’s 2022 Milestones test results, and around 17% of the state’s adults lack basic literacy skills.  

The new laws aim at improving those numbers by introducing two related approaches to literacy instruction: “the science of reading” and “structured literacy.”  

“Science of reading is sort of a relatively new term that bundles together … the role and necessity of systematic instruction on phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency as well as comprehension and vocabulary,” said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor at the College of Education at the University of Texas-Austin.  

“It’s become a kind of streamlined way to talk about evidence-based reading instruction in an effort to change reading instruction in one particular direction.”

“Structured literacy,” as defined by one of the new literacy laws, refers to an “evidence-based approach to teaching oral and written language … characterized by explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic instruction.” 

The new law names six specific topics of focus: phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable instruction, morphology, syntax, and semantics.  

“The idea is giving guardrails and a strategic mindset to how literacy instruction is delivered,” said Matt Smith, director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE). 

“We’re talking about making reading instruction in the early grades more systematic. … There’s a process. You screen and identify the students that have reading deficits.”

Many of these ideas have been around for decades and are already included in Georgia’s education standards. The new laws, however, mandate that school districts use evidence-backed approaches and aim to ensure consistent adoption across the state.  

That’s key to ensuring educational equity, proponents of the approach argue.  

“Literacy is the social justice issue of our time, and the science of reading is our best tool to accomplish that,” said Ramona Brown, a science of reading professional development coach at the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy at the Atlanta Speech School.  

“It is helpful for all students and harmful to none, and … through these approaches, 95% of children will learn how to read whether they are here in Atlanta or they are in Crisp County.”  

“For a majority of kids in our country, whether you have dyslexia or whether you have experienced generational lack of access to opportunity, or you speak English as a second language … what we see from research is that an overwhelming majority of children require explicit instruction,” added Ryan Lee-James, chief academic officer at the Atlanta Speech School

“The explicit nature of the teaching means that we’re not leaving things to chance or for you to figure out on your own.”  

The lofty literacy goals found in the new legislation will need to be backed by careful implementation at the district and school levels to produce results.  

“There really needs to be a lot of systems and supports and resources in place so that people can have the time and space to learn about these approaches to be developed,” said Woulfin, the University of Texas professor.  

“If you don’t have the aligned professional learning opportunities for teachers and principals, so that everyone has time and space to learn about these new curricular materials, to try out these new instructional approaches, at the end of the day, classroom practice is not going to change.”

“There is an opportunity for this to go really well with different pieces collaborating and interfacing together,” Smith added. “But there is another kind of concern, which is that there is a lot going on, and so we have to keep our eye on the ball because a lot of different things are going to be going on at the same time.”  

One of the newly signed laws creates a literacy council made up of legislators, educators, and experts. Smith said that could be helpful in ensuring a unified approach and keeping things on track.

“I’m glad that both laws passed at the same time because I think it’ll be mutually beneficial for both in terms of strategy, public messaging around literacy, [and] also around the scientific evidence-based components of reading,” he said.  

Funding is another possible obstacle to the success of the initiative. The early literacy bill did not have specific funds in the budget earmarked for it. It’s possible that additional funds could be allocated to the measure during next year’s legislative session.  

Without the funding, the measure is like “an unfunded mandate,” said John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. He said that when Mississippi sought to turn around its poor literacy rate, the state backed the effort with millions of dollars, something that is currently lacking in Georgia.  

“We always need resources in order to teach reading effectively,” added Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “We need books in our classroom that are engaging on a variety of levels.” 

“We need to be providing our students with much more than just the standard textbook. … The books that we have in our classrooms need to reflect the diversity of our students in the world.”  

When Chattahoochee County implemented a science of reading approach, it took a large commitment of resources, said Kristie Brooks, the district’s superintendent

“It’s been a heavy lift financially. And it’s also a heavy lift, time-commitment wise,” Brooks said. “We have had two-and-a-half years of intense training and coaching and classroom modeling. It was so important that it was done correctly.”  

Brooks said the investment has been worth it for her district. 

“We have been just so pleased with the work that we have seen,” she said.

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

Simone Edmonson is Georgia’s new mental health parity officer  

ATLANTA – Georgia native and insurance-industry veteran Simone Edmonson has been selected to serve as the state’s new mental health parity officer.  

Last year’s landmark mental health legislation, House Bill 1013, created the position within the Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. Edmonson started in the new role last month.  

In her new role, Edmonson will be responsible for implementing many of the insurance-related provisions of the mental health act, including making sure Georgia health insurers cover treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems on par with how they cover physical problems.  

“Parity requires our insurance to provide coverage for mental health and substance use disorders, and we want to make sure that our Georgians get that treatment and that it’s fair,” Edmonson said.  

Watching family and friends face mental health struggles drove Edmonson’s interest in the new role.  

“I understand what [parity] can do and how important it is … that care is actually offered and care is not restrictive and not limited,” she said. “It was near and dear to my heart when I learned about mental health parity.” 

Edmonson grew up in Savannah, where she attended  Johnson High School, and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in community health education from Georgia Southern University.  

She spent several years working in public health, including in a community lead-risk prevention program in Savannah, before going on to work in the insurance industry for more than two decades.  

Edmonson gained project management skills as well as knowledge of contracts and insurance policies during her time in the private sector.  

“When I was offered this position, I was like ‘Yes, this is something I can see myself doing,’ ” Edmonson said. “I’ve always been an advocate for mental health with my own family.”  

In her first month on the job, Edmonson has spent her time reviewing health plans for compliance.  

She is focused on preparing a report that will be delivered to the governor and legislature in August about how health insurers are complying with the new mental health parity law.

If Georgians think they are not getting fair health-insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse problems, Edmonson said they can file a complaint with the Department of Insurance on its website

The mother of a daughter in her twenties, Edmonson said she recharges by going for long hikes, spending time with her family members, friends and pets, and reading. She recently hiked around Amicalola Falls in North Georgia.  

Mental health is a problem that affects all communities in Georgia, Edmonson said.

“We have a melting pot, people coming from everywhere,” she said. “When it comes to mental health [problems], there is no discrimination at all. It happens to all of us.” 

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

State tax revenues drop in March

ATLANTA – Georgia’s tax collections dipped in March, the state Department of Revenue reported on Friday. 

The state agency brought in $2.68 billion in taxes in March, down about 3 percent or $83 million from March 2022. 

Despite the slight decrease, net tax collections are still up for fiscal 2023. So far this fiscal year, Georgia has collected $23.61 billion, just over $1 billion– or 4.8% –more than the same period last year.  

The decrease in March tax revenues appears to be driven mostly by a drop in individual income tax collections. 

Individual income tax collections this March fell by 25.2%, or $400.1 million, when compared to last March. Individual income tax refunds were up by $392.9 million while non-resident return payments were down by about $70.9 million. 

Corporate income tax collections for March totaled $497.7 million, up $292.8 million or 142.9% over last March. That was driven in large part by a dramatic increase in corporate income tax return payments, which were up $230.7 million, or 530.4%, over last year. 

Net sales tax collections were healthy last month, increasing by 3.8% over last March for a total of $660.4 million. 

Revenues from the state tax on gasoline and other motor fuels increased only slightly over last March, by just 0.9% or $1.4 million, to a total of $157 million this month. 

The state’s chief economist, Jeffery Dorfman, earlier this year told the Georgia General Assembly that state tax revenues are likely to drop sharply this year because last year’s huge increase in capital gains tax payments is unlikely to be repeated. 

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