By Sam Burnham
This coming November, among the pile of candidates on the ballot, Georgia voters will find a ballot initiative that will propose allowing the state government to take over "failing" schools and somehow elevate them to a level of success. The initiative will appear on the ballot as a measure that will allow officials to "intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance." A "yes" vote would allow state officials to take control of schools that are determined to be "chronically failing" and set up a program that would allegedly lead to satisfactory student achievement.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has produced a map that shows the locations of specific schools that are in the crosshairs of the proposed law. The schools on the map are typically either in the inner-sicty areas of Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, and Columbus or they are in rural areas. There are rural systems in which the entire system is on the list.
We will probably revisit this issue before election day but I want to offer some first thoughts on the issue and see how this situation develops.
First of all, Atlanta Public Schools factors heavy in this deal. 27 of their 1001 schools find themselves on this map. That's 26.7% of the schools in that system. More than 1 in 4 of Atlanta's public schools are considered to be chronically failing.
Randolph, Taliaferro, Macon, and Talbot Counties are each represented by a 100% failing schools rate. Every school in each of these systems are considered chronically failing.
This represents the two ends of the spectrum in Georgia. Atlanta is considered a world-class city, a metropolis that has hosted the Olympics and is building a stadium with a price tag of over $1.5 billion in hopes of hosting yet another Super Bowl. The city of Atlanta has an enormous tax base with which to generate resources for its local school system. With the presence of the Atlanta University Center, The Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and numerous other colleges in the city, there is opportunity to seek the assistance of educational resources to help boost school performance.
The rural systems that made the list don't have as many resources available. The budgets are much smaller and the distance from colleges and universities makes forming educational partnerships more difficult.
But here is the lesson to be learned, the lesson we must learn. In a healthy and functioning community, the school system plays a part, just like law enforcement, local businesses, local churches, civic organizations, etc. A community is an organism that needs healthy parts to make up a whole. A failing school system is indicative of a failing community. That sounds really harsh but go back to the data. These schools are in under-performing neighborhoods. These communities often have trouble with poverty, crime, food deserts, lack of strong civic organizations, and poor relationships with law enforcement and education. This is not a problem of race as "failing" communities can be found with every racial make up you can imagine, especially in rural Georgia.
The relationship between parents and educators is essential to the success of students and therefore schools. When parents, even those who value education, lack a strong relationship with the school, the student is already at a disadvantage. Parents need to be able to trust on the institutions that are educating their children. Educators need to be able to do their jobs with the full support of the parents in their community. Parents who don't understand the educational process or that are engaged in in multiple jobs trying to feed, clothe and educate multiple children often have neither the time or the energy to adequately engage in their child's school. Likewise, educators who fail to recognize the impact that home issues have on their students can't really connect on their end. A community depends on strong bonds.
The idea that allowing the state to just take over the schools would somehow make the situation better is foolish. Forcing a community to relinquish control of one of its essential institutions and turning that institution over to some faceless bureaucrat in Atlanta is asking for disaster. Much of our educational funding comes from the state but the face on each school needs to be local. School boards are and should remain locally elected bodies that build locally operated schools. That's a relationship that you can't build with Atlanta, especially if you figure that Cuthbert, in Randolph County, is actually closer to Tallahassee than it is to Atlanta.
So what is the answer? We've got to help communities. We have to see the communities get stronger. Atlanta cannot continue to aspire to the level of world class city with a failing school system built in failing communities. We need to get our colleges and universities to partner with failing schools. Perhaps we need to research ways to strengthen communities. And we need to be prepared for the possibility (read:bet the farm on it) that there is a different answer in each case. What works in Taliaferro is probably not what is going to work in Atlanta. The Talbot County solution is probably not going to work in Macon. We might need more than one answer.
There is a problem with many schools in Georgia. No one is disputing that. But bigger government is not going to work. It never does. What will work is fixing neighborhoods and communities. The Golden Dome is a fantastic destination for field trips for our schools. But the thing is just too big and gaudy to work inside of them. Get our kids to the capitol but keep the capitol out of our schools. Vote "No" on November 8th.
There seems to have been a particularly cruelty to my generation this year. We have seen a number of the celebrities of our youth pass on over the course of 2016. None has disappointed me more than this afternoon's revelation by the BBC that actor Gene Wilder had died at age 83.
Wilder's nephew reported that the actor died Sunday at his home in Stamford, CT, aged 83. The explanation that Wilder died from complications of Alzheimer's was one more sting from that particularly cruel disease. He reportedly kept his diagnosis a secret wishing there to not be one less smile in the world. I can report that today, there is at least one less.
Gene Wilder's role as Willy Wonka will forever remain my favorite. While it is one of his more popular roles, I still find it to be underappreciated. Pulling off that combination of sagacious yet eccentric genius was not a role that could have been filled by a lesser actor. The way he flowed through the emotional scale, dragging us with him all the way, will never be forgotten by me. We watched the film in my third grade class after reading the Roald Dahl classic. That was a special treat as our teacher hated television and discouraged us from watching it at every opportunity. But her love of the book and Wilder's portrayal of it made this movie an exception.
Throw in his role alongside Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles and you have another masterpiece. This film from the past could not be made in today's overbearing PC environment. It was a film that challenged our thinking and made us laugh, perhaps not in that order. The total lack of sensitivity in the plot and the dialog would shake a modern college safe space to it's very core.
Though he had so many roles, I'll never forget a commercial, for the foundation started in memory of his late wife, Gilda Radner. It was a role I'd never seen him play - a man with a completely broken heart. You could see the love that he had for her and the pain he felt from her passing. It was a moment of true humanity, a look at Gene Wilder himself, and not just a character from his repertoire. That's when you know you're looking at a real person. You connect with them, not just the character. I think that's how he made all those roles come alive for us, that connection with the audience.
Whether is was raucous and raunchy alongside Richard Pryor, a family friendly moral lesson in a chocolate factory, or the insistence that his name be pronounced "Frahnk-un-steen", he never ceased to draw us in, make us laugh, see a bit of ourselves, and perhaps even be a better person for it. And the world could certainly more of that. "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Godspeed, Gene, and thanks for everything.
By Sam Burnham
I got a bit of a shock the other day when I came across a Rome News-Tribune story that reported that there were over 700 students that were considered homeless in the Rome City and Floyd County school systems. Considering that these two school systems instruct approximately 16,000 students, that's roughly 4% of the student population that is homeless. This sounds like a small number but both of these systems have multiple schools with fewer than 700 students. Technically you could build a mid-sized school in one of these systems with 700 students. That got my attention.
But then my wife reminded me of the homeless student standards. On the first day of school, among all the other paperwork our kids brought home were forms to ask about the housing arrangements of students. These are the forms used to compile the data. There were questions about the parents being employed in agriculture. Questions about the permanence of the students' current living arrangements, and several more. This is how the homeless student totals are compiled. There is different criteria that classifies a student as homeless. So just because a student is classified doesn't mean they are sleeping in a car, a park, or under a bridge. The parent(s) may be migrant workers, there may be a living arrangement with friends or extended family, the students may be living in a county other than the one in which they attend school. So the numbers may be somewhat skewed.
That is not to say there is not a serious problem with homelessness in Georgia.
In 2014 the Macon Telegraph reported that neighboring Houston County had 327 homeless students during the 2013-14 school year. 63% of these students were living with extended family or friends. 25% were living in transitional housing such as motels or RV parks. 12% were living in shelters such as the Salvation Army Safe House or the Duke Avenue Homeless Shelter in Warner Robins.
There was also a 2015 story in the Tifton Gazette that discussed problems in Tift and Effingham Counties. The Gazette highlighted a group called Family Promise, a New Jersey-based organization that works alongside faith-based groups, mostly local churches and volunteers from those congregations. Families are housed in Sunday school classrooms that otherwise sit empty six days of the week. These families receive services that result, according the the Family Promise website, in 74% of the participants finding permanent housing arrangements. Family promise has programs in several Georgia counties, including eight that could be considered rural.
Rural counties in Georgia have a problem with homelessness. It may not be the type of homelessness we usually think about It's easy to buy into the stereotypes of homeless people living under bridges and begging for change in the shadows of Atlanta skyscrapers. It's another thing altogether to think of a kid trying to become an educated adult in a homeless shelter in Tifton or Rincon. That's not to downplay Atlanta's homeless problems, it's just pointing out the reality that it's not just a big city problem.
While there are people rising to the occasion and seeing success in helping people get back on their feet, it's frustrating to know that the economy in rural Georgia is struggling the way these numbers suggest, especially considering our recent story about agriculture is the top industry in Georgia. These rural counties are producing substantially to our economy but it isn't keeping the people who live in these counties out of poverty. And a drive through rural Georgia is often the only research you need to see that poverty is a problem there.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, a typical home in rural south Georgia was more than just a shelter for a family. The typical home was a self-sustaining organism in which a family provided for all their own needs. By today's standards it was still poverty, no doubt about that. But the family raised their food, built their shelter, provided their own entertainment, and, if times were good, had enough to sell or trade for a few luxuries. The humble house was often a one bedroom structure with a loft and a porch. The parents had the bedroom, the daughter slept in the loft away from predators and such, and the sons, if the weather was reasonable, slept on the porch. If the weather was less than cooperative, the boys slept in a common area in the house. The family all worked together to make sure the home worked. Again, not prosperous by our standards but they had a home.
It stands to reason that a century of economic and technological advancement would have improved this model to make it more profitable, more feasible, and more of a reality for the people of rural Georgia. But now we have families, often single mothers and their kids according to the statistics in the articles mentioned earlier, that find themselves in motels or RV parks trying to survive. Our economic model and the expectations of society have changed many homes into simple domiciles that produce nothing but what money can be gleaned from a paycheck earned by working for someone else, if they are fortunate enough to find work in such an economically challenged area. While reality means that not everyone can operate a small business or farm, why is it not a better option for people in rural areas? If Georgia is going to spend thousands of dollars on sports stadiums, worthless streetcars, recruiting programs for major industries, and who knows what all else, why can we not allocate better resources to educational programs to produce workers for our biggest industry? Why do we not work to change the stigmas and expectations within our society that work against the economics of rural Georgia? If we are living in a world of progress why do we find ourselves not progressing?
We need solutions. What we have been trying is not working. And if we consider that the answers to our problems with energy, medicine, food security, food deserts, and the supply of resources that our other industries need to thrive may all be lying in a fallow field in rural Georgia, then we are wasting time. It is ridiculous that the economy in our economic breadbasket is under-performing. That has to change.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire