December 14, 2006
Linda Schrenko's sitting in a cell in a Tallahassee prison, serving an eight-year sentence for her part in a fraud scheme that stole from Georgia schoolchildren.
But there's another part of her legacy: the reading program she funded in Richmond County in 2001.
Here's a closer look at the programmed instruction and the legacy of literacy it's leaving.
Voyager is the programmed instruction that teachers use for every child from kindergarten to third grade in Richmond County.
When we sat down with director of curriculum Dr. Audrey Wood last April, she told us Voyager made a very specific promise on how well it would work.
"The company promised we'd have 100% reading at grade level at the end of third grade," Dr. Wood told us.
That was when the most recent scores for reading were for 2005. Now we've got the 2006 scores to compare...and the news is not good at all.
"When I look at the scores, I see each year it is declining," said Monique Holman, president of Craig Houghton Elementary's PTO.
Her school, like many in Richmond County, has seen dramatic declines in students who can pass the state tests for reading.
In 2004, 14 percent of third graders didn't meet state standards for reading. In 2005, it was 19 percent. And in 2006, 49 percent didn't read to state standards.
"It's not just my school," Holman said. "It's at least, out of 25 to 30 schools, at least 20 schools are rapidly declining. It's a wakeup call. It's a concern."
It's also a concern for Vernelle Dent, PTO president at Jenkins-White Elementary--though she places blame on a combination of Voyager and teaching staff, which at her school has changed in the last year.
"We can always do better," she said.
Jenkins-White is Richmond County's other school with the distinction of having the worst reading scores for third graders in the county.
At Jenkins-White, the scores for reading were 26 percent failing to meet standards in 2004, 33 percent in 2005, and in 2006, a whopping 66 percent.
"66 percent of students did not cut the mustard in third grade," Dent said. "After this year, if the program's not working, then yes, they need to change it."
Who could have predicted reading scores would decline so rapidly after putting Voyager system-wide in Richmond County schools?
Maybe the most decorated and celebrated teacher we have: former local, state and national teacher of the year Andy Baumgartner.
"Voyager is an example of the national trend toward programmed instruction," Baumgartner told News 12. "In programmed instruction there is a script to be read and certain responses to look for."
Baumgartner had lots of concerns about bringing voyager in.
"According to Voyager, we were not to move away from the script whatsoever, not bring anything in to the room. It was to be Voyager for 90 minutes."
So Baumgartner spoke up.
"I was very, very vocal," he said. "I upset and angered people, and I frustrated people, mainly because I wanted people to think about what we were getting ready to do."
And then Baumgartner left Richmond County schools for Columbia County, where he just retired last year.
We asked him to look at the scores.
"If indeed Voyager program was the language arts and reading program for Richmond County and they've dropped that dramatically, then Voyager has to take a lot of credit for that," he said.
So what about Voyager?
We asked the Dallas company for an on-camera interview, and they declined.
They did defend their program and released a statement, saying in part:
Consider that five years ago only 17 of Richmond County's elementary schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). As of spring 2006, 30 out of the 35 schools using the Voyager curriculum have made AYP. In addition, 86 percent of Richmond County students in the Voyager program for four consecutive years passed the 2005-2006 CRCT exam, higher than the passing rate for both the district and the state.
(Read the full statement here.)
Taxpayers so far have spent $10 million on Voyager since 2001.
We wanted to ask the Board of Education about this, but the superintendent and the director of curriculum didn't want to go on camera. They did say the Georgia state Department of Education told them not to compare 2006 test results in reading because the test was harder than previous years.
They also said they'll be looking at 2007's scores carefully. So will we.
To see the board's statement, click here.
I asked Linda Schrenko about Voyager in July after she was sentenced. To view her comments, click here.
To see Richmond County's CRCT scores for the past three years, click here.