Achieve Escambia is a local group working for positive changes in our community to foster greater achievement from “Cradle to Career” for Escambia County youth. I listened with great interest as Jennifer McFerrin gave the BCC a presentation/update about this group at this past Thursday’s Committee of the whole. When it was appropriate, I asked questions and chimed in with my view as a 10-year member of the local school board.
I was cut-off at one point by my colleague Grover Robinson, and another counterpart disagreed with much of what I said. But the fact of the matter is that much of what we are doing is not working and I strongly believe that we need to take a different approach. Once again we are loaded down with 5 “F” Elementary schools and a raft of “D” schools throughout our local public school district. The point I desperately tried to make was that we must stop dumping money into the same programs over and over that do not work.
We must stop demoralizing and beating up the teachers that are working themselves into early graves giving all they have in order to help students that have abysmal home-lives. We must, in my opinion, take a different approach.
Focus on Families. Remove discipline nightmare students. Apply for a school of hope grant for a public charter boarding school to help the students in our community that live in extreme social dysfunction. Eliminate social promotion. Focus on rigorous academic programs for reading in grades 1-3. These are the priorities. Because if we can get to the students who want to learn—we can make a difference. But first we must have some difficult conversations…..
Social Dysfunction and Poor Choices Destroy Communities and Socially–Dysfunctional Communities Create Low-Performing Public School Districts
Whether we’re talking about facilitating neighborhood trash clean-ups, enabling neighborhood property improvements via low cost loans and grants, setting up summer work programs for community youth, building sidewalks and parks, or giving all students county library cards--a local government can do things to help make communities better. Our County spends millions of dollars every year providing services that enhance our community. But this, in and of itself, does not make a great community.
Our local public school district provides all students access to educational
opportunities, programs, and resources that enable students locally to reach levels of educational achievement that are amazing! I witnessed this as a locally-elected ten-year school board member who attended dozens and dozens of graduations through the years. A majority of our amazing local students of all races and socioeconomic brackets finish school and go on to lead productive lives either in the workforce, the military, or in the pursuit of an advanced degree. Some finish High School with GPA’s in excess of 4.0 and attend the top colleges in the country. But what these students do, great as it is usually, does not make a great community.
Our local Police Department and Sheriff’s Office do tremendously difficult work in our community, routinely putting their lives on the line to protect citizens and businesses while arresting lawbreakers. Believe it or not, there are those that actually blame the police for problems in communities rather than thanking the men and women of law enforcement for what they do. But having a great police department does not, in and of itself, guarantee a great community.
So what is it that makes a great community?
Rich or poor—or anywhere in between—communities with high concentrations of strong nuclear families make create communities. And great communities make great public school districts-it’s not the other way around.
By contrast, failed communities marred by vanishing families, drug abuse, crime, blight and festering social dysfunction create public schools that struggle.
This is why parents who are contemplating a home purchase regularly choose their neighborhoods based upon the quality of the local public schools.
Now, some will quickly dismiss and overlook the dysfunctional attributes of some communities instead bemoaning the “poverty” of such areas that invariably “created” the problems. This is naïve and ill-informed. Poverty and dysfunction do not necessarily go hand in hand. The world is full of poor people and poor families that respect one another, work jobs, remain married, reject illegal activity, attend church, and otherwise act responsibly. Poverty is difficult and it is challenging—but we simply cannot allow ourselves to adopt and accept the mythology that poverty is the singular culprit that creates social dysfunction. Poor life choices combined with the wholesale abandonment of the concept of personal responsibility creates social dysfunction.
As an example--the most recent data available from the National Center for Health Statistics that looks at birthrate demographics in our nation (from 2015) is stark. This research indicates that out-of-wedlock birthrates are 27% for Asians, 30% for Whites, 56% for Hispanics, and 77.3% for Blacks. The numbers go up even higher for mothers that don’t graduate from High School.
These numbers point to an untenable condition that is feeding the dysfunction in some communities nationwide and right here in Escambia County. When you are looking at nearly 8 out of 10 children being born with no father in several areas-the probability of success for these children under our current conditions is abysmal. Every married couple with children knows that raising a family is difficult and even if a strong family does everything right—children of strong families still make mistakes and poor choices. These children, blessed as they are with strong families, still need encouragement, love, and sometimes discipline and redirection from their loving, two-parent family.
A child with one parent, or no parent, doesn’t even stand a chance statistically. The deck is stacked against them from day one.
Sadly, the well intentioned liberal social welfare programs from the 1960s have enabled this condition to flourish. These programs disincentivized fatherhood by making single parents with multiple children remunerative to an extent that working a job requires a “pay-cut.”
This simply must change and the focus must become tailoring programs that encourage families to stay together. Instead of rewarding irresponsible, self-destructive behavior—how about we create programs at all levels of government that reward families that stay together? I’d like to see recurring, growing and cumulative tax-credits for families and parents that stay together. How about targeted sales tax and property-tax exemptions for low income families that stay together? How about creating real penalties for fathers that do not pay their child support—to include hard labor in exchange for payment credits?
Treating the symptoms of generational social dysfunction that have ruined many cities in our nation simply is not working. Frankly, it is not affordable and it has been ineffective at best. Worse than this--some of these programs have exacerbated and enabled the problem to grow!
Here is the sad truth.
There are no magic bullets, quick fixes, or panaceas that will fix the issues social dysfunction has created. It will take tremendous will, effort, and patience. It may also take decades to turn this tide. It will take a concerted effort at all levels of Government to re incentivize families while simultaneously curtailing those entitlement programs that enable socially dysfunctional behavior on a broad scale. Fix social dysfunction and you fix public schools. No pre-kindergarten program will fix the problem, no matter how much money is dumped into it and no matter how many prominent citizens believe in it--if families are not engaged and do not do their jobs at home. Pre-kindergarten helps students socially, it helps families, and it helps communities by infusing money into jobs that support these programs—so yes this is a valuable social program. But as an academic program that helps students long term---the most high -quality research does not support this notion.
Achieve Escambia will focus on “high quality” pre-kindergarten programs as their vehicle of choice to improve educational outcomes locally, there is no doubt about this. Several points I made about this at the meeting are important to note:
1 . I am aware of no rigorously-controlled scientific studies that show a direct correlation between pre-kindergarten attendance and increased likelihood of H.S. Graduation.
2 . When Achieve Escambia moves ahead with Pre-K as their vehicle of choice to improve educational outcomes—it is imperative they measure the cohort in relation to a control group of similarly situated students that do not attend Pre-k programs.
3 . It is imperative that Achieve Escambia follow the groups longitudinally, and keep track of the data.
4 . At the end of grade three for both groups, it will be imperative to measure the academic achievement of both groups and report results back to the stakeholders.
We are fortunate to have so many in the community that are willing to give time and resources to help our students. But even with all the volunteers and groups that are helping—we are still losing too many students that are falling through the cracks. We must be intelligent with resources and focus our limited resources on what truly works to help students academically—not what we think will work, and not what we hope will work. And we must be honest in our program assessments-regardless of what apple cart (s) this might topple.