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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Joe Brown Columns

Make education a priority

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When it comes to reading, the FCAT scores released last month were not kind to some Pinellas County schools. Of 300 schools targeted to boost performance, five of the bottom 20 were in Pinellas. The county also had the lowest-ranked school in the state, Melrose Elementary School in South St. Petersburg.

What is most surprising about this is that few administrators were surprised by these results. I think this is what is meant by the soft bigotry of low expectations. It's as if those in charge kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, “Oh, well, we tried.”

Maybe that's because all the low-performing schools have high rates of poverty. When students come from poor families, they are automatically labeled “at risk,” which means they have a good chance of entering school not knowing the alphabet, being truant, not completing homework assignments, getting poor grades and eventually dropping out of school. Education is not a priority in their homes.

Pinellas school board member Peggy O'Shea attributes part of the problem to the end of forced busing.

“A few years ago, diversity was driven by court orders and we had more mixed school populations, and overall it was a better environment for all our kids,” O'Shea told Tribune reporter Anastasia Dawson. “That doesn't mean that there weren't just as many kids that struggled, but I think the schools were better able to adjust and meet their individual needs because they weren't overwhelmed by huge numbers of kids that needed that extra help. How do you overcome that challenge?”

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That's something educators have been trying to figure out for decades, but reject poverty as an excuse. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where many families struggled. In most homes, however, there was some semblance of family life, and many of my classmates who lived what we today call “below the poverty level” still managed to excel academically, because they were expected to.

Many parents of my peers didn't finish high school, but they still expected their children to do better. That's why teacher's word was the law, and they were given tacit permission to slap you upside the head if you got out of line.

Back in 1997, I tried to get some answers to why things had changed so drastically when I returned to my old elementary school and interviewed my fifth-grade teacher, who had since become the principal. Ms. Haynes, who while growing up in Atlanta was a classmate of a young Martin Luther King Jr., was old school in every sense of the term, especially when it came to classroom discipline. She and other teachers of the day brooked no excuses for underachievement. Whether your family was dysfunctional or fell below the poverty line, they would still expect you to know 4 times 4 was 16. Your house burning down was the only acceptable excuse for not doing the work.

She talked about her frustration with a system run by businessmen instead of educators. She had grown tired of union guidelines that prevented her from getting rid of an alcoholic teacher. Her biggest disappointment, however, was that of the 359 students enrolled at the time, only 25 lived in a two-parent household — a complete reversal from my days there.

“Many of the children are homeless, even though they go home to a building,” was her commentary on the family structure. She was disgusted with “the morals of some mothers today.”

Still, she implemented a dress code, established a parent training program and made the school part of a neighborhood watch program as well. She did her best to make the school a sanctuary, but the results were not enough to produce any significant change. She retired the following year.

There's an old saying that education is like a three-legged stool, with the legs being the school, parents and students. If one of them is weak or nonexistent, the structure will be shaky.

The minimum things parents need to do to make sure their kids get a decent education are send them to school every day on time, monitor homework, and limit the time their children spend watching TV. If they can't do that, then complaints about the school system ring hollow.

There likely will be calls for more spending to aid at-risk students in Pinellas County. Sorry, all the money in the world can't replace a supportive family structure that isn't there. As O'Shea asked, how do we overcome this challenge? I don't know, but any efforts to change things have to address parental involvement, or lack of it.

If not, get ready for next year's lousy test scores.

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