Georgia’s Governor-Elect seeks hard answers among students at DeKalb County middle school

Article and digital photos by Tomi Morris Johnson 

©2002 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.

tomij@wingcomltd.com

 

November 7, 2002, Decatur, GA…Sonny Perdue, the first Republican elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, called the reading of “Jack and the Bean Stalk” by a 6th grade student at Cedar Grove Middle School impressive. “It didn’t look like his reading was a struggle at all,” Perdue said in a closed meeting with educators and administrators. The suggested reading level for this story is 2nd grade.

This illustrates that some Georgia students are being taught below grade level in an attempt to motivate them and move them from picture books to chapter books. It also shows that politicians at the highest level in Georgia government are aware of educational issues plaguing predominately black middle schools. The major question to be answered is, “What will the new governor do to enhance the education of ALL students in Georgia?”

Sonny Perdue and wife, Mary, who is a speech therapist, listened to students Stanley Rogers (orange shirt), Jay Johnson (green shirt), and Brandon Odom (white shirt) in 6th grade “Reading Ramp-Up” class at DeKalb County’s Cedar Grove Middle School. “I didn’t know I would be on camera today,” said Odom who came to school wearing a uniform.

It was nice to see Perdue touring a school two days after his upsetting victory. Perdue said he went to Cedar Grove to access how one of the better schools in the state was meeting and exceeding goals.  However, it may have been better to tour schools in North Dakota to get some tips on how students who rank 1st in SAT scores are being taught. Perdue and State School Superintendent-Elect Kathy Cox have a hard row to tow if they are interested in improving the perception of Georgia’s schools, which ranked 50th in SAT results, only followed by the District of Columbia.

In Georgia, black students averaged 851 points on the SAT, six points below the national average for blacks and 182 points behind Georgia’s white students. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper, DeKalb schools' 30-year struggle for racial balance has resulted in re-segregation. One wonders about separate being equal in Georgia’s schools in 2002. (http://www.opinioneditorials.com/freedomwriters/hagler_20020920.html)

Revenue is down $277 million in Georgia for this fiscal year compared to the previous year. According to two Columbia professors, segregated schools are more likely than predominantly white schools to be financially under-resourced and educationally inferior, as measured by pupil/teacher ratios, advanced curricula, computers, laboratory equipment, etc. (Taylor & Piche, 1990)( http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu/digests/dig91.html) Parents and community leaders who are taxpayers should never forget that government schools are paid for by tax dollars, therefore, they have a huge stake in their investment and should keep politicians and school administrators accountable for their student’s education.

EDUCATION IS PRIORITY IN GEORGIA?  Some political analysts say Perdue won the gubernatorial election because incumbent Barnes’ flunked the education report card on SAT test scores, thereby receiving an F for his education reforms. This one factor was held up as a major campaign issue, but the College Board who administers the SAT and other professors say judging a state’s intelligence reputation on SAT scores is unmerited.

The College Board says SAT scores are useful in making decisions about individual students and assessing their academic preparation. “Using these scores in aggregate form as a single measure to rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts, or states is invalid because it does not include all students. In being incomplete, this use is inherently unfair,” the College Board announced on its website.

Barnes lost to Perdue by 105,899 votes. Two days after the election, Barnes’ signs were uprooted and left on Metropolitan Parkway pavement in predominately black Atlanta.

 

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“The state SAT rankings are worthless in determining the quality of the schools in a state, and the potential for basing perceptions and policies on the rankings is even worse,” said Greg Marchant, a Ball State educational psychology professor. Differences in parent income and parent education of the test takers accounted for 92 percent of the difference among the states' average SAT scores. (http://www.bsu.edu/news/article/0,1299,3500--,00.html) That is why employment and entrepreneurship of parents is vital to the student’s educational experience.

Let's take a look at several leading indicators which should be used in accessing K-12 schools.

Test results

Curriculum development

Retention/attrition rates

Faculty staffing

Graduation rates

Financial aid assessment

Strategies to meet individual student needs/modified teaching practices

Planning for physical facilities, auditorium and technology centers

Foreign language, art and music courses

Student services - guidance and placement

Pupil/teacher ratios

Self esteem building

Teacher credentials

Performing arts/cultural events

Expenditures per student

Teacher incentives

Minority enrollment pared with cultural education

Positive/safe environment and school climate

Research/technology initiatives

Link to skills needed in job market

Trade and technical courses

Community involvement

Parent/teacher/student/community teams – mentoring programs

Political, entrepreneurial, self defense, and technology skills

Health career training

Pupil incentives

Extracurricular programs

Good nutrition

Inner/exterior discipline

Critical thinking skills

Instructional media programs

Student-run business initiatives

Counseling programs

Mastery of academic courses

Ongoing staff development

Daily student assessments

 

According to "Schools to Watch," an initiative launched by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform in 1999, four of the best middle schools in the country are Barren County Middle School in Glasgow, Kentucky; Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Illinois; Freeport Intermediate School in Freeport, Texas; and Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Chicago, Illinois. (http://www.schoolstowatch.org/what.htm.)

Another noteworthy charter school to watch is Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago, IL. The school’s African-centered curriculum features learning Twi, Swahili, Portuguese and Spanish. Lunches consist of healthy, vegetarian meals. A vegetable garden planted by the students and staff is on school grounds. The school drum team requires each student to know the history and purpose of a particular drum. Kufiriki Wall of Ancestors and African cloths are displayed. Critical thinking, social behavior, communications technology as well as language acquisition are major components of the learning process.

(http://www.cps.k12.il.us/Schools/Opportunities/Charter/School_Profiles/Betty_Shabazz_International/betty_shabazz_international.html)

“Love is the overriding and crucial element in the teaching process…we will never send our children to be taught by those who do not love them.”

Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Founder of the Institute of Positive Education, Chicago,IL

The 1990s can be seen as a decade of "educational backsliding" for all minority groups except Asian Americans, according to an August 29, 2001 report in the Christian Science Monitor. “Part of the problem, analysts say, is continued reliance on local property taxes to fund local schools. That tax base continues to grow in affluent communities, but not as much as in urban school districts. (http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/0829/p1s1-usgn.html)

Cedar Grove Middle School, which is 98.3 % African American, has a white female principal, Deborah Rives, who deems herself in touch with black culture and education reforms. On the school’s website, Rives prides herself with hiring all the staff at the newest middle school in DeKalb County, opened in 1999. Rives said she encourages students to talk and share their feelings at Cedar Grove.

“Research says that children learn best by talking to each other which increases their knowledge level. The more they talk, the more they learn. When they talk together, they’re teaching each other, and when you can teach something, you know it. I had the opportunity to listen to a Harvard professor, Dr. Lani Guinier, who said the best way for African American students to learn is from conversation.”   Principal Deborah Rives

 

Rives met Governor-Elect Perdue at the school house door and later watched as students played a game in Ms. Allison Quashe’s 8th grade math class.

“We have developed a coding system which tells students which standards they meet,” Principal Deborah Rives explained to Perdue as she showed off student work in the hallways. “The colored dot on their work means that the student used a range of different strategies. We are not trying to hide anything from the student. This shows them what they need to do. This is part of the standards based, America’s Choice/Georgia’s Choice design, but we developed the dot system,” Rives said.

DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones was pleased when Perdue stopped in DeKalb County on tour.  “This certainly shows the significance of DeKalb County in the entire state of Georgia. We have some success stories, some failures, and some challenges here too,” Jones said.  “What the new governor should do is listen to the students, the teachers and the parents. Our previous governor didn’t listen,” Jones added. “This governor is going to have to work across party lines to be successful. There will be no automatic way of getting legislation through. Sonny understands the art of politics, which is compromise. I think he will do extremely well.”

Jones worked along with Perdue and Kathy Cox in the General Assembly. “For the governor to be serious about education…asking for our advice, counsel and suggestions and at the same time touring with the new state school superintendent who happens to be a teacher…shows they care about students in Georgia,” Jones said.

 

 

 

Jones talked to Cedar Grove math students.

 

Kathy Cox toured school with Perdue to “take a look at their academic and patriotic program for saluting veterans. The students are well-disciplined, academics is soaring, and ‘America’s Choice’ seems to be working,” Cox said. Master teacher salaries, teacher advancement programs, community/business partnerships, and creative student incentives will be part of Cox’s education program. “Accountability will still be important,” Cox said. “In order to improve education, you’ve got to motivate kids.”

 

 

 

Sarah Wood (l), vice-chair of DeKalb County Board of Education, District 3, talked with Perdue at Cedar Grove. Her motto is: The school cannot live apart from the community. “I’m optimistic for the future. Party doesn’t matter.  What matters is the function and the performance of the person in the job. The new governor said he is going to make education first, and of course, that’s my focus. Unless someone seriously focuses on education, we will not be in any condition to attract economic development. The kids will not have the opportunity for a successful life and will not be able to become effective citizens because they will not be able to find employment,” Woods said.

“No one, not even the governor, wants a child to succeed more than the classroom teacher.”  Sandra Neal

 

Sandra Neal, Perdue’s statewide Education Campaign Chairman, said she is excited about Perdue’s tenure and the impact it will have on education. “I feel really good about his (Perdue’s) understanding of current education issues.  I know he has the greatest respect and admiration for our teachers,” Neal said. “We help raise the self-esteem of students when we challenge them, when we help them meet their goals, and we reward that.  All children can learn, and education is the key to their future. We know we have our work cut out for us. There is a lot to be done. We have to make students and parents understand that if they are serious about going to college, they must take school seriously,” Neal said. “You prepare minority students to take the SAT the same way you do other students, but you may need to encourage them a little more and provide support.”  Bringing outside testing experts in who match the ethnic background of the students also helps, Neal said. In the background is Dr. Johnny Brown, Superintendent of DeKalb County Schools.

After making the comment, “Free At Last” before coming to Cedar Grove, Perdue was chastised in the media. “I admire Dr. King,” Perdue said. “I’m afraid the people who made an uproar (about using that expression) probably were not happy I was elected anyway. I really hope they have a great day, and I love them as Georgians as well.”

Before the governor-elect’s visit, WingcomLtd’s Tomi Johnson made a trip to the Perdue transition team meeting in the Piedmont 2 Room at Buckhead’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.  There were no minorities in attendance at this meeting. Dan McLagan is the communications director for the Perdue transition team. “He (Perdue) will have to perform as governor and improve education.  By the end of four years, I think everyone will say ‘Sonny Perdue did a good job for me and my family.’”

Perdue Press Conference:

“This (Cedar Grove Middle School) is a bright spot. It is a great school, great concept, and good leadership supported by a board and superintendent that believe every child can learn and none should be left behind…. We want to replicate this kind of success all across the state…Folks, we are going to make it better; we are going to make it work. The children of Georgia will be the beneficiaries of this administration. I am convinced of it.

“Education is a priority. We are going to budget our priorities to meet the human needs of our state. Education is a great human need that is tied to economic development. We do not have a cost figure yet. We are not talking about some big, expansive program. We’re talking about using the resources that are available now, putting coaches in the classrooms, a real on-the-job mentoring program…”

“We know we are going to have revenue challenges, that’s why today I have announced that Hank Huckabee, former director of the office of planning and budget, will be our transition director of planning and budget. He will be meeting with Dr. Thomason to find out what the real revenue estimates are.

“We will not have trouble dealing with the legislature at all. They are going to feel like they have been freed to vote their conscience, constituencies, and hearts about what is going to make Georgia better. We are going to go with the merits of ideas, not partisanship.”

Perdue refused to answer questions concerning a referendum to change the Georgia flag back to the previous one with a pronounced confederate emblem.

SIDEBAR:  New SAT in 2003

Parents and educators should be aware that the SAT itself is changing.

 

The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.