If the Montgomery public school situation isn’t a full-blown circus, then I have never heard a calliope. All we need is a trapeze or two, a couple of elephants and a lion and a tiger.
We already have a full cast of performers.
The MPS school board, the chamber of commerce, the education foundation, the city council and county commission, a ministerial association or two and the state department of education just for starters.
Unfortunately, the entire act has grown wearisome.
We’ve seen all the fingers being pointed at someone else saying it is all because of them, we’re battling things out in court, we’re tossing hand grenades like conversion charter schools on a red hot politically-charged fire, we’re comparing apples to oranges and taking things out of context and above all we’ve chosen sides and like two boys on a playground, daring the other one to come across my line.
What we haven’t done is check our pride at the door and offer to find some common ground of any sort and start from there.
And we have steadfastly refused to do is take a long hard look at who we really are and how we got to this point. A map is of little use if you don’t know where you are. Because you don’t know which road to take to find your way.
But in this case, we have people telling us which road to take even though they don’t know where we are.
At the core of Montgomery’s school ills is the fact that there is too little communitywide support of our public school system.
In his great little book, Is There A Public For Public Schools?, David Mathews points out that “Erosion of our commitment to a system of public schools should be taken very seriously. He goes on to state that we should look at school reform as community building.
“Fundamental change has to start with the public and the community if it is to be effective against the structural impediments in school systems that tend to block that change,” Mathews adds.
(This book should be required reading for every school board member, mayor, city councilman, county commissioner and legislator in Alabama.)
Montgomery has three school systems. One is a private system of about 35 schools and 7,600 students, 78 percent of whom are white. Another is a magnet system of 10 schools of about 5,300 students, 62 percent of whom are black and 20 percent get free-reduced lunches.
The third is more than 40 “traditional” schools with about 23,000 students, of which 82 percent are black and 62 percent get free-reduced lunches.
(And now the Montgomery Education Foundation wants to add a system of five charter schools to be run by an outside education management organization.)
The most important difference between magnets and traditionals is not racial makeup as many seem to think, but the level of poverty.
Poverty is the greatest predictor of school performance because it gives a good picture of the culture in which a child is being raised.
(Of course, children of poverty can learn and perform well. I have studied such schools. But these are the exceptions—not the rule.)
An example are the recent infamous A-F school grades. (While this system is extremely flawed, in this case we will assume grades are flawed as badly for one school as another.)
Montgomery had seven A schools, all magnets. Of these, the highest poverty rate was 22.3 percent. There were 17 F scores, all traditional schools. The lowest poverty rate was 51.5 percent and ten were in excess of 80 percent.
So, these sets of schools are apples and oranges and to compare test scores at Lee to those at LAMP as the state interim superintendent recently did at a press conference is not valid.
Here is more proof of the differences. I surveyed all 24 principals of A and F schools asking them to describe how active is their PTA, would they say it is excellent, average, below average, and what kind of parental involvement does their school have.
It was hardly a surprise that the answers were basically daylight and dark.
F school: “Yes we have a PTA, however, it’s not as supportive as we would like. Support is below average. Much room for improvement in parental involvement.”
A school: “Excellent parent involvement.”
F school: “We have a PTA, but probably only 20 members. Consequently, support is what I consider below average.
A school: “We have 100 percent PTA membership and they could run the United States.”
F school: “While we have decent PTA membership, only four or five people are really involved. Participation at fund-raisers is sparse.”
A school: “We have more PTA members than we have students. We have one major fund-raiser a year and this group TOTALLY runs it. Basically, we ask for what we need and they find a way to get it.”
But what has the Montgomery intervention focused on so far? Only the classroom when that is clearly not where so many of our issues begin. We hired high-priced “turnaround specialists,” we spent $536,000 on consultants to assess schools, we signed a three-year no bid contract for someone to straighten out MPS finances.
As we too often do, we looked for band aides instead of trying to find out why we are bleeding.
And now we want to take five of these high-poverty schools, keep the same students and somehow, magically, everything will be OK.
There are 8,760 hours in one year. A child in Alabama spends 1,080 of them in school. That is only 12 percent of their time. Yet we spend most of our resources on the 12, ignore the 88, and wonder why not much changed.
Rather than coming to grips with reality, we threaten law suits, rant and rave and never admit our mistakes or lessen our pride.
At a time when our 29,000 public school students desperately need rational leadership, common sense and people willing to sit down at the same table, we get anything but.
Yes. It is a circus.