The tour was Barge’s first official visit to Cherokee County School District since being elected in 2011, where he spent the day visiting classrooms of all grades and ranging the entire spectrum of curriculum from special education classes at Woodstock Middle School to STEM laboratories at Clark Creek Elementary School STEM Academy.
Barge also took time to give his outlook on the financial future of the state education department as well as his controversial opinion on the constitutional amendment regarding charter schools.
Barge fielded questions at the end of the day about the recent controversy surrounding his stance on the constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Barge remains a vocal opponent of the amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot, which if approved, would create a commission charged with approving and allocating taxpayer funds to charter schools over the objections of local school boards.
His position was outlined in documents posted on the Georgia Department of Education’s web page and was sent out to the media.
The department has since removed all information regarding Barge’s opposition to the amendment after threats of litigation.
“I never really saw the big issue with the fact that I have an opinion,” Barge said Tuesday.
As of now, there is no pending lawsuit against Barge or the Department of Education, but Barge said he is fine with removing the content.
“The information’s out there. My opinion’s out there. I’ve made that pretty clear. My opinion hasn’t changed from when I ran for school superintendent — I’ve never seen the need for a third state agency to do what local school boards and the state schools board already do, which is approve charter schools. That’s never changed,” Barge said.
Earlier in the day, to kick off the visit, Dr. Frank Petruzielo, superintendent of schools for the Cherokee County School District, Woodstock High Principal Bill Sebring and several district staff members welcomed Barge to Woodstock High School and allowed several video production students to follow the tour and ask questions as part of a feature for the school’s Friday morning video announcements.
Luke Sellars, a student in the program, asked Barge several questions about his visit, including why he chose to visit the school district.
Barge said College Board data, including SAT and Advanced Placement scores, shows Cherokee is a “really, really strong” district.
“Our folks got together with your folks and decided we needed to come see what you guys are doing and what is so special about Cherokee—why are you getting the results that you’re getting and what can we learn from Cherokee for the rest of the state?” Barge said.
Sellars also asked Barge whether more funding would be coming to local school districts any time soon, noting statewide budget cuts throughout the last several years.
“The only thing that I can say is that I know for many consecutive months now revenues for the state have been up,” Barge said. “Whether or not we will see that coming to our school districts in the form of increases in (Quality Basic Education) funding, we’ll have to wait and see when the budget cycle comes around in this next legislative session.”
Despite the cuts, Barge said districts throughout the state are making strides in putting Georgia at the forefront of education, with Georgia being the only state in the nation seeing gains in all areas of nationwide tests, including SATs, ACTs and the National Association for Educational Progress.
Barge also said 120 of the 180 school districts in the state—including Cherokee—are operating on less than 180 school days per year, which is the minimum requirement of school days set by the state.
“It’s a really difficult time and in the midst of all of that, our teachers and our leaders are still getting the job done which is absolutely amazing,” Barge said.
In the next five years, Barge said he is hoping to fill achievement gaps within state-recognized subgroups and develop a technology infrastructure that could be used by teachers and students throughout the state.
Barge said the program, which is in development, will provide digital learning to all students in an effort to help districts that can no longer afford to buy textbooks to have immediate access to relevant information for less cost.
Barge said the most important thing on his agenda is maintaining relevance for all students by connecting what students do in school and what they want to do in their careers.
“If we are going to come out of the economic doldrums that we’re in, there’s no reason for us to have the unemployment rate we have in the state and have 9,000 vacant jobs in metro Atlanta in technology,” Barge said. “We’ve got this tremendous skills gap between what businesses and industry needs and what we’re preparing students with and that’s because we haven’t necessarily done the best job of having relevance and connecting student learning to jobs.”
Later Tuesday afternoon after finishing the tour, Barge said he thought the three schools on the whole were “very progressive” and “on the cutting edge of STEM education.”
“It’s visionary,” Barge said. “A lot of the things that they’re doing take a lot of thoughtful vision and planning out… and I think that with Dr. Petruzielo here and his leadership and the things that they have been able to accomplish, Cherokee’s beginning to see the fruits of that by being the number one district in the state in SAT scores.”
He said he was especially glad to see STEM education be implemented in early grades, as young children’s minds are “like sponges.”
“The more of this that you can introduce them to, the better the chances are of keeping them in those areas when they get into middle and high school,” Barge said.
However, Barge said some of the class sizes were “a little large for (his) liking”—including one first-grade class with 37 students.
“Teachers are doing amazing work to get the results they’re getting,” despite the bigger class sizes, he said.