Fish or Cut Bait
A former superintendent accused of fraud, loaded guns on school grounds, three schools facing state intervention … these are just a few of the challenges Bibb County educators must overcome to reel in public trust. But at least one school leader maintains some people are “afraid to eat sushi because they’ve never tried it.”
It takes me all of 5 minutes – no make that 5 seconds – to figure out why the director of communications for Bibb County Schools chose Vineville Academy of the Arts for my school visit.
From the moment I am buzzed into the front lobby through the securely locked main entrance, it’s all sensory overload. The dulcet sounds of classic jazz serenades one and all via intercom, the succulent perfume of what turns out to be pork barbecue being dished up in the cafeteria below nearly makes me swoon, and the setting itself is just too much to take in. Vividly colored murals and paintings and quilted tapestries cover every wall; brightly spangled mobiles hang from the ceilings; iron sculptures and a piano stand sentry over poshly comfy seating areas.
As I’m gawking at every single thing I see and snapping iPhone photos like an absolute fool, tiny little pint-sized people start filing past me in a suspiciously orderly fashion, heading down the stairs towards the cafeteria for some of that barbecue that’s still making my mouth water. Several smile and shyly wave, and I’m half expecting them to break out into song about representing the Lollipop Guild or welcome me warmly to Munchkinland. Because this place is Oz. I mean, the only thing missing is a tiny dog named Toto by my side, me in a blue gingham dress, and the (poof!) appearance of Glinda the … oh my God.
As if on cue, Principal Kristy Graham strides out to meet me. And though she isn’t holding a diamond-bedazzled star wand or wearing a pink tulle ballgown, she could be. Seriously. Blonde, beautiful, dressed like she just walked out of an Ann Taylor ad, Mrs. Graham is an absolute delight – greeting children by name at random, hugging others, and trilling the virtues of Vineville Academy like a songbird as we amble down Listening Lane then hang a left on Win-Win Way.
I’m already sold. Even before a plump little princess passing in the hallway rushes at us both with arms outstretched, announces “I’m huggable” and embraces first Mrs. Graham then me in a big ol’ bear hug. Even before I meet Jude, who just earned his Millionaire Reader chops by “reading a lot of books with a lot of words.” When his second-grade classmate Jayden spontaneously breaks out into song (Lone Star Trail), it’s the icing on top of the heart-melty cake. But even if I’d never laid eyes on a single beaming student or shaken hands with an energetic, impassioned theater, art, dance, music, or science instructor, I’d still be reeled in. It’s plain to see this school is wildly impressive.
Perception Is Reality
I’m here at Vineville Academy to help put together the first in a “State of the Schools” series for The 11th Hour.
Seems natural to kick that off with a closer look at public schools – a system that has faced its fair share of challenges, both of the public relations sort as well as grappling with very real classroom and systemwide issues.
Just two weeks before today’s visit, a student at Rosa Taylor Elementary School across town made it into the school with a loaded 9 mm and managed to keep it hidden – from teachers at least – until minutes before the final bell rang. Outraged (and terrified) parents noted in a subsequent specially called meeting that notifications about the who, what, when, where and why weren’t sent out until later that evening. School officials maintain they followed safety protocols and communicated the facts as transparently and as quickly as possible once those procedures were followed.
A loaded firearm tucked in a student’s jacket pocket, however, isn’t the first incident to set off alarm bells in Macon public schools – and that’s in less than 3 months’ time.
Last fall before Thanksgiving, a teacher at Ballard-Hudson Middle School left the campus by ambulance after being conked on the head by a padlock thrown by a student. That incident fell on the heels of another student being stabbed by a classmate between classes. Less than a month later, a Central High School teacher was hit with 11 counts of felony sexual exploitation of children after investigators found kiddie porn on his personal computer. Nitpicky-sounding spokespeople were quick to point out the teacher’s work-issued computer was clean of illicit material and the teacher “wasn’t watching it in the classroom.”
And just days before I visited Vineville Academy, a cadre of lawyers sat down in a Macon conference room to try and settle an ongoing dispute between the Bibb County school district, former superintendent Romain Dallemand, and a tangle of additional defendants. A document search shows the word “fraud” appears 136 times in the 97-page claim filed by the school district in 2016 in Federal court. The school district is seeking $9 million in the lawsuit, which stems from a corruption probe involving allegations of bribery, money laundering, failure to deliver software the system says it paid for, and bogus technology purchases.
Where those talks will land or whether more criminal charges are coming is anyone’s guess as of today. But what is certain is that the very mention of the name Romain Dallemand – who has pleaded guilty to tax evasion in the case – makes lots of people angry and uncomfortable, and not necessarily in that order.
Which isn’t to say anyone is trying to deny the problems exist. In his December blog update – housed on the Bibb County School District’s public website – Superintendent Dr. Curtis Jones, Jr. spoke to the point.
“There have been too many incidences where students have flipped desks over, or in some cases have hit a teacher. While we can talk about how to use different types of training and how to de-escalate, how to clear the room and follow all of the protocols in order to make sure the other students are safe, some students just disrupt our classrooms, disrupt our schools and disrupt the learning environment,” Dr. Jones writes. “Once a parent says a child has a qualifying condition, we can’t suspend them for more than 15 days. This has got to change. We can only do so much is what I’m going to share with our legislators.”
Bring some of the negative news up with others who work for or send their kids to Bibb County public schools, however, and you will see brows furrow, shoulders tense, and lips tighten. No one ever reports the good things happening, they say. Which is fair. Headlines about a runner-up for Georgia’s Teacher of the Year hailing from the system’s ranks or how a homeless high school student beat the odds and made it into Harvard aren’t nearly as sexy a headline as “Student Brought Loaded Gun, 10 Bullets to Rosa Taylor School.”
At Vineville Academy, at least, every classroom has a security camera, as do the halls and other common areas. Interior and exterior doors remain locked. There are monthly disaster drills so every kid and teacher knows how to find a safe place should a tornado or something much, much worse touch down in their midst.
Even so, certain fears persist throughout the community. That public schools in Bibb County are “troubled” may be mere perception is beside the point, says Chief of Staff Keith Simmons. “Because perception,” he admits, “is reality.”
And even while some perceptions may be accurate – include lagging scores throughout the district in some fundamental subjects – it’s also true that some parents who choose to send their kids to private schools rather than public do so because of what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve seen or experienced for themselves.
“Some people are afraid to eat sushi because they’ve never tried it,” Keith says.
Either way, those very same parents are invested in the school system whether they send their kids to public schools or not. Almost everyone who lives Bibb County chips into the district’s $283 million budget – just under $112 million of that is from local taxes. By comparison – though admittedly, it’s not apples to apples – the budget for all of Macon-Bibb is about $150 million. Beyond dollars and cents, Macon-Bibb’s ability to attract industry and increase property values is highly contingent upon high-performing schools that produce an educated workforce.
At the end of the day, everyone who wants to enjoy greater quality of life in Macon is dependent on the success of its public schools.
The Numbers Game
As any math teacher will tell you, numbers don’t lie. Everything else can be shaded by perception, different cultural viewpoints, and environmental factors that run the gamut, but numbers tell a story. On the other hand, as even the most mediocre calculus teacher will tell you, with a little fancy footwork, 1 plus 1 doesn’t necessarily equal 2. It’s a good theory to bear in mind when looking at the numbers associated with Bibb County’s public schools because it’s hard to say what they mean in the big picture and the long run.
Five is a number that resonates a great deal right now with the school district’s 3,300 employees. That one represents Victory in Progress, the five-year strategic plan for success Dr. Jones, staff members, and a planning team laid out in 2015. Broad questions the plan asks include: Who are we; Where are we now; Where do we want to go; How will we know when we’ve arrive; and How do we plan to get there? At a cerebral level, that includes mapping out a means of providing “equitable and challenging learning experiences that ensure all students have sufficient opportunities to develop learning, thinking, and life skills that lead to success at the next level.”
On a more plain-language level, that means decreasing chronic absenteeism in elementary, middle, and high school levels as well as increasing the system’s graduation level from its current 77% to 80% by 2020. It means fighting system-wide sub-par reading level scores, just one of the Georgia Milestones used by the state to assess achievement levels for grades 3 through 12.
A scorecard used to track variables included in the 5-year plan breaks down key performance indicators for “increasing student content mastery” into No Change or Declined, Progress But Did Not Meet, and Meets or Exceeds.
In the 2016-2017 school year, the scorecard shows “meets or exceeds” progress in 5th, 8th, and 9th grade English Language Arts (reading), while 3rd and 6th grades show “progress but did not meet” levels of performance. Fourth and seventh-grade levels showed “no change or declined.” Math content areas, social studies, economics, history, social studies also showed some decline, as did AP scores and an increase in AP scholars.
On a positive note, tracking for the current year shows improving results in most of the key content areas. Additionally, the number of students taking a college entrance exam showed an increase to 2,218 kids total. But on the other side of the coin, the number of students enrolled in college has been on the decline since 2015, currently topping out at 42% – a number which may – or may not – be one of those tricky 1+1=3 equations.
“The percentage and numbers are not an accurate assessment because about half of students provide no response about whether or not they have enrolled in college. This number also would not include those who enroll in military,” says Director of Communications Stephanie Hartley.
While schools like Vineville Academy are helping overall through perseverance, improving milestone scores, and overcoming some of the environmental adversity (including transience and homelessness) some students bring to school with them, it bears mentioning that not everyone can get in. As one of only a handful of magnet schools in Bibb County, K-5 applicants at Vineville are chosen at random through a lottery system and must undergo an interview to even be accepted.
As I’m leaving, I ask the principal what happens to those kids once they leave the cocoon? They have a firm foundation, she assures, to carry them through.
In the second part of the series, we’ll take a closer look at private and charter schools in Bibb County.