On May 22, my youngest child will graduate from high school, and I am ecstatic to see her turn that tassel and move on to her next chapter in life.
Is she prepared for what’s next? Did I teach her the right lessons? Did her school provide her with the best education? Without a doubt, I can answer yes to the first two questions, but the last question has bothered me for the last 12 years. Therefore, I attended countless parent-teacher conferences, became PTA president, joined the strategic-planning board, hosted fundraisers, and I ran for an open state House seat to enact better education laws. Just a few weeks before my daughter’s graduation, I found out that her public high school has been identified as one of the lowest-performing schools in Georgia.
At the same time, my colleagues and I in the General Assembly were debating the Opportunity School District legislation, which will allow voters to decide whether the state should create a special school district that would work to bring failing schools up to adequate performance. These schools would start from scratch with a new staff, budget and resources. Of course, I helped champion this legislation. There were many legislators who were on the fence about it, some only agreeing with parts of the bill, and some viewpoints were “night and day.”
Why hasn’t there been a plan for improvement provided by those who oppose Opportunity School District legislation? It doesn’t take much courage to merely express discontent, but it does take courage to suggest solutions when discontent arises. Every time a student, regardless of race, is not properly educated, then society picks up the slack in the welfare and penal systems. The amount of money invested in educational institutions is, at times, more than half of state and local taxes.
At the helm of the opposition is the idea of discrimination by ZIP codes. When you hear the words “failing schools,” it sounds like a new term. But in April 1972, the ERIC Institute published a report titled “A No-Fail Attitude in an Inner-City School,” which took an in-depth look at W.H. Crogman, an Atlanta public elementary school in a primarily African-American, low-income community. What was different about the education systems in the early ’70s that made students, teachers and parents exhibit pride when low-income students performed at or above the national average? Crogman’s leaders took an aggressive approach to ensure the school’s success, including: (a) developing responsibility within the pupil for his or her own learning, (b) having pupils assume leadership roles and (c) developing academic-achievement plans for each pupil. Are these the same objectives embedded in our struggling schools today?
Many argue that funding crises are why these schools are struggling, but I believe that, like a new business starting, these schools will never have enough money. It takes innovative thinking and resourcefulness to change things. I’m not saying there aren’t opportunities to improve funding streams, but are our schools effectively managing their resources? Are there other factors at play? We can’t continue to use this as an excuse!
Very few districts have mastered the art of including students, educators, parents and business leaders. Schools with low performance, low graduation rates, low staff morale and few business partners have common denominators. Parents believe their voices are not valid. Educators are not encouraged to be creative, nor are they supported when policy changes are implemented. Students are not expected, or motivated, to be high achievers. And establishing business relationships is frowned upon as a nuisance. To expect a different outcome under these circumstances is not realistic. Starting from scratch would be ideal.
According to a recent article in Fritzwire, a national education newsletter, “to be successful today, students must be civically and digitally literate, globally competent and proficient in critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation.”
I would include having family support and business partnerships in that list. The school leaders in those low-performing schools must understand that schools are a part of the community. Many times, these schools are a safe haven for students. School employees should understand and respect the communities they have decided to serve in without being judgmental. The many social issues facing these neighborhoods warrant nontraditional approaches, which require changes in policies locally, statewide and nationally, in order to have a chance at being effective.
I stand behind my “yes” vote on the Opportunity School District bill because we have to aggressively address and fix these failing schools, and it’s going to take starting over. Just as my daughter is about to have a fresh start on her next chapter in life, our schools are in dire need and will have the opportunity to start fresh under this bill.