UPDATE JULY 25, 2017: The bashing continues. From a local newspaper editorial: “Every student here (has) been slighted over and over for more than a decade while the local educational input- both with planning and dollars- wasn’t good enough to bring these students an adequate environment in which to learn.“
Really? Has that writer visited these schools in the past ten years? Has that writer seen the additional manpower, technology, programs, and building improvements? What is it about say, Orchard Knob Elementary that is not an “adequate environment?” This is another example of uninformed, easy bashing, that ignores the deeper issues outside the school building.
My original story has received tremendous response, generally favorable, but with a few folks asking for specific ideas to “fix families,” as I wrote near the end. Admittedly, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. However, anyone who has suggestions, or ideas is welcome to leave your comments below. (DC)
ORIGINAL COLUMN FROM JULY 24:
Now that the seemingly endless superintendent search has ended in Hamilton County, school officials are faced with another task. The five “Innovation Zone” (iZone) schools are subject to state takeover, in some form or another, because they consistently rank in the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools in student achievement scores. Various options are on the table to determine who will oversee those schools, and how they will be funded.
They are Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Middle and Elementary, and Woodmore Elementary. You’ve probably read or heard all the insults. “These are bad schools.” “We have to provide better teachers.” “These schools have failed our students for many years.”
Sorry, I disagree. When I visit those schools, that is not what I see. If anything, the communities, or more specifically the neighborhoods have failed these schools. It’s time to place the blame, and put the improvement effort where it belongs: in the home.
It’s not that some folks aren’t trying. They are. Principals and teachers will tell you. It’s easy to say that parents don’t care. And it’s certainly true that many of these students don’t have a two-parent home. Sadly, some don’t have a one-parent home, and a few are even homeless.
But in many cases, parents are not unwilling to participate in their child’s education, they’re simply unable. Many who throw stones have never walked in the shoes of those who work two jobs just to put food on the table. It isn’t easy to show up for PTO meetings when your employer expects you to be on the job. Nor is it easy to spend time going over math problems and creating science projects when you’re worn out from back-to-back shifts. Now, how is that the fault of Dalewood Middle School, for example?
As the students enter high school, it’s not unusual for them to be the breadwinner of the family, working long, late hours of their own. If they are fortunate enough to be involved in extracurricular activities like clubs, sports, or band, it’s often up to teachers and coaches to provide transportation. Out of their own pocket, of course. I often wonder if “the state” is aware of this.
Let’s do the math. If a student has perfect attendance, he or she is in school about 1,260 hours per year. However, there are 8,760 hours in a year, so educators are able to supervise that student 14 percent of the time. Until someone figures out a way to help that child the other 86 percent, we will have problems.
It’s not like the state, county, and federal government have been ignoring these schools. In recent years, educational leaders have been pleading for help, and they have been getting it.
A little history: these are all former Chattanooga city schools. During the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s, city taxpayers and elected officials seemed to lose interest in them. I visited one of those schools in 1995, before computers became commonplace. The school’s most recent set of encyclopedias were from 1962. Many of the low-income area school buildings were in terrible shape. Chattanooga voters decided to cut their losses and get out of the school business in 1996, and by the following year, Hamilton County was forced to absorb the long-neglected city schools.
Dr. Jesse Register, the first superintendent of the newly united school district, knew he needed to beef up those schools. Much to the chagrin of county residents, he moved key resources, including some top teachers and principals, where they were most needed. In the years since, county taxpayers have poured money into new facilities and renovations, in an effort to bring those schools into the 21st century.
So what else could be done to fix these schools? You could provide before and after-school meals, better technology, tutors, academic coaches, graduation coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, vocational programs, police officers, new administrators, and more qualified teachers. You could recruit volunteers, you could change the start time to later in the morning, you could provide a late pick-up bus for those who missed their regular bus, and you could add counselors, social workers and truancy officers.
Guess what? That’s all been done! It has been happening for some time now, under Hamilton County school district leadership. The test scores still aren’t where they need to be, but anyone who expected an overnight miracle is out of touch with reality. As I’ve said before, if “the state” has a magic bullet, why have they been holding back?
Here’s the bigger issue. What’s being done to help those children during the 86 percent of the time they are not under a school roof? Where’s the outcry about that? Certainly some churches, philanthropists, recreation centers and volunteers are doing the best they can, but it is not enough. Who is out there who can go door-to-door to fix families? How will they do it, and who will pay for it?
In the meantime, the top scholars and athletes who live in those school zones often find a way out. Private schools that need to boost their diversity often provide assistance and scholarships for the most desirable students. It’s an offer that’s hard to refuse. Nearby charter schools also attract families who are involved with their children, and who are able and willing to pitch in for a better education. As a result, these “failing” iZone schools are left without many students and families who lead by example.
Can a student from Brainerd, Orchard Knob, or Dalewood succeed in spite of all this? Absolutely, positively, yes. I can introduce you to some amazing young people who attend those schools, or have recently graduated. If a student wants to learn, he or she can do it. If a student wants to stay out of trouble, he or she can do it. The percentage of those students is not as high as the state believes it should be. I cannot argue that. I will argue, however, with those who say the schools themselves are the problem.
The real problem, as School Board chair Steve Highlander said, can be summed up in two words: culture and economics. Until “the state” figures out a way to nurture and protect children before and after the school bell rings, nothing will change. The schools are the safest place most of those children ever see. They’re staffed by loving adults, well equipped with the best learning tools, and they provide nourishment for the body and the mind. Let’s stop bashing them. Dig deeper. Get to the root of the problem. Figure out how to fix families, and there will be no such thing as a low performing school.