Initiatives in Southern Education

By Staff

Vol. 10, No. 6, 1988, pp. 15-18

After almost a decade of reform, education in America remains a significant state and national issue. The United States Department of Education now releases a yearly report card comparing general educational achievements for each of the states. Legions of private national commissions and task forces continue to study education problems, issuing a variety of recommendations. After adopting education reforms, many states continue to implement them, with and without changes in their original plans. New approaches, such as the "effective school" movement and the "essential school" reforms have entered our professional vocabulary and some schoolhouse doors.

These reforms have been sustained by an enlarging awareness of the central importance of education in the nation's future. For the first time in decades, leaders of the public and private sectors throughout the country understand that improving education--including the education of the disadvantaged--is necessary to safeguarding our national future. Through a variety of programs, community leaders, business executives, and labor leaders have become more involved in public schools because their institutions have a stake in the success of the education system; they now realize that, without educated poor and minority students, America cannot have an educated workforce in the future.

In the American South, especially, these cooperative efforts signal a new era in the region's development. For almost 30 years after the United States Supreme Court's


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decision in Brown v. Board of Education, issues of school integration suspended most meaningful, local collaboration on education. Throughout the South, massive white resistance to integration and the accompanying divisions between blacks and whites immobilized local cooperative activities, leaving the design of policy and problem-solving in education most often to the federal government and courts. Today, this history of local inactivity and neglect in education is coming, at long last, to an end.

The local control of public schools, especially in the urban South, is more democratic today than it has ever been in this century, primarily due to the Voting Rights Act. As a result, minority and poor voters have a real voice, often a controlling one, in determining who sits on the school boards and who decided the local policies for education.

This change in local control of schools now allows minorities and the poor in the region to engage others in real, local partnerships for solving problems of education instead of depending almost exclusively on the long enforcement arm of the federal government.

Today, community leaders, including many business leaders, now see more clearly than ever before both the community interest and their own institutional selfinterest in a well educated future workforce that includes minorities. Almost every community leaders in the South's urban areas acknowledges the importance of addressing the education of minority and disadvantaged students. Their own willingness in recent years to become involved in local schools and local partnerships in the schools is clear evidence of this changed circumstance.

State governments are also beginning to recognize that the needs of disadvantaged students is the large unsolved issue of education. In all Southern states dropout rates have alarmed even the most seasoned educators and in some Southern states that require exit exams, teat scores clearly evidence that those who are failing to achieve are primarily poor and minorities. As a result, education departments in most Southern states have begun to take their first serious steps in establishing program and policies to face these issues. (See SLRC Bulletin, 1988.) While their work and thinking continue to take shape, the issues of education of the disadvantaged are emerging as a major concern for Southern states.

Finally, the role of the federal government is also changing. For the first time in ten years the Congress passed and the President signed legislation which returns attention and resources to the issues of educating the disadvantaged. For example, the new education legislation provides in 1988-1989 $50 million for dropout prevention; $30 million in an "improvement fund" to encourage local schools to develop new approaches to problems especially those involving parents in the schools; a new basic skills program for high school students has been authorized at $200 million; and states will be required to use a portion of their block grants for education to help local school districts develop measurable characteristics to make schools more effective for all pupils.

These are encouraging trends, but they ought not blur the fact that the problems of education for poor and minority youth persist in the South. Oversized rates for dropouts linger, primarily among minority, poor youth; test scores for comprehension, reading, and math remain dismally low for poor students. For example, more than 40 percent of students receiving free lunches in Mississippi schools failed state-mandated tests last year. Not surprising, many minority and poor students continue to forego college and technical schools. At a time when education is recognized as a national priority and when the involvement of community and business leaders in schools have become widespread, the performance of poor and minority children is education's moat significant failure.

While improving education is universally supported, improving the public schools is not. In the South segregation academies and other private schools are growing, too often at the expense of the children in public schools. This trend not only frustrates the integration of public schools in many places but also drains resources and support from the need to educate well all our children.

The problems in the South's public schools derive, in large part, from social and economic factors that go far beyond the capacity of any one individual school. The fact that poverty is the most reliable, single predictor of poor academic performance underscores that schools alone cannot remove all barriers for disadvantaged students. At the same time, schools and community leaders are not helpless to do much more in addressing these problems. In the past, many school boards and city officials have failed to make the education of disadvantaged children one of its highest priorities in the allocation of resources and talent. Some local school systems have not targeted poor and minority students for additional, available resources such as counseling and tutoring. Many school systems have responded far more urgently to the state standards of education reform than they have to the local needs of disadvantaged students in each of their schools.

By the same measure, many of the cooperative activities that parents and community leaders have undertaken at the schools have little to do with such fundamental problems. Far too often, local leaders in business, labor, and community work have participated in what the chairman of the board of Xerox Corporation described as "feel good" partnerships. "Business and education have largely failed in the their partnerships to improve the schools ... because they keep shoring up a system that needs deep structural changes," he stated. To be sure, the opportunity to solve locally in the South the problems of educating an children is now re-emerging. What has not yet appeared is a certain and sustained collective will to make fundamental changes in the way we focus our resources and educate all our children. That challenge is now before the South.

Dropout Prevention Project

In the summer of 1986, the Southern Regional Council conferred with groups and school officials in a dozen urban areas across the region to determine if their communities and school systems were interested and capable of establishing local partnerships to develop and carry out a plan for addressing the problems of students dropping out of the public schools. By the end of 1986, community/school groups had been formed in six cities: Atlanta; Baton Rouge Louisiana; Columbia, South Carolina; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Savannah, Georgia. These


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local collaboratives received small grants from the Ford Foundation for planning activities.

During the last two years each of these local collaboratives has sought to understand the causes and factors of dropouts in their own communities as well as the available services--in the schools and in the communities--currently offered to prevent and assist dropouts. More recently, the local groups developed local plans which describe their collective judgment about what needs to be done locally to prevent dropouts in the future.

Each collaborative has had some difficulty in making choices, in establishing a sense of priority among the different possible approaches. Although they came to a rather easy agreement on the local factors of dropout, all of them were of more than one mind in deciding exactly what changes will be most effective and most appropriate. The process understandably developed a far greater sense of informed will to act than of collective judgment on precisely how to act.

The plans and analysis of each community are quite different, but they do have similarities. At least four school systems--Atlanta, Memphis, Columbia, and Savannah--revised their own definitions of dropouts and the procedures by which they collect internal data as a result of the collaboratives' deliberations. In these systems, the changes represent substantial revisions in school policies and practices. In a fifth school system, Baton Rouge, the collaborative documented a very high rate of suspensions and expulsions as a result of administrative practices.

Not surprising, virtually all the collaboratives call for extensive administrative changes in identifying, documenting, and tracking dropouts and potential dropouts. In Columbia, the plan calls for the development of an extensive internal database by which the school system can locate students who are showing the early signs of dropping out. Most collaboratives call for revising suspension, expulsion, or attendance policies.

Without exception, poor classroom performance and classroom boredom were identified by the collaborative as one of the major reasons students drop out of school. In Memphis, the collaborative found a strong correlation between dropouts and a history of falling behind in grades. In Savannah, the most cited factors for dropouts were failing grades and boredom. The other collaboratives came to similar conclusions. As a result, most of the collaboratives are encouraging schools to revise curriculum or classroom activities in different ways. Columbia, for example, proposes additional teacher assistance and tutorials. Atlanta proposes an approach of "esteem building" and new curricula. Memphis is suggesting a pilot program including new teaching materials and a special curriculum.

In-school training is also being planned by the collaboratives. Memphis envisions an "awareness" campaign about dropout problems within the schools. Columbia and Atlanta are looking for additional counselors and social workers to be available for all grades (an approach intimated for the future by the Memphis proposed pilot program as well). Little Rock already has carried out a retreat for school counselors on dropouts and intends to do more in this direction.

All the local collaboratives included improving, coordinating, or starting out-of-school programs as part of their dropout prevention plan. For instance, Savannah and Atlanta stressed parental involvement; the Columbia and Memphis plans include publicity campaigns for the general public; and all the collaboratives' plane involve programs for jobs or pregnancy counseling.

With the plane established, the Council's work nowadays is to provide technical assistance to the collaboratives, particularly assuring that community and parental representatives of blacks and the poor maintain an active partnership in the work to implement the plane. We are also assisting in developing and using tools of assessment and evaluation for local efforts and aiding the collaborative, its leadership, and staff in handling the ongoing problems of structures and personalities.

The importance of these local efforts is as much in their process as in their products. The local collaboratives have been able to set in motion developments within the school systems which probably would not have taken place without their work. In this respect, the collaboratives' future can be reflected only in part in their plane and proposals. While their analysis and plane have merit, their strength and their future role reside primarily in the process of community involvement which they have already begun and hopefully will continue.

School Accountability Project

The Southern Regional Council is also beginning a program to promote school-based accountability for improving the education of all students in the middle grades, in five or six other sites in the urban South. In several carefully selected communities, the Council will work with a local community-based organization (or coalition of such organizations) to build partnerships of local business, community, and labor leaders in association with local school officials, parents, and teachers to assess how well the schools of the middle grades are meeting the needs of its students who are falling behind. These local partnerships will work to improve the quality of involvement in the task of improving the performance of disadvantaged students in the middle grades of local schools. Hopefully, they will establish a new system of accountability by which local educational systems determine how well each school is meeting the needs of its students at risk of failure; and determine what changes in resources, activities, and policies are needed to assist each school in meeting the needs of these students.

To help achieve these goals, the Council is establishing an advisory board composed of educators, parents, and community leaders active in the field of education. The board will help select the site for local work; provide general advice and guidance to the project; and assist in disseminating information about this approach to improving accountability and performance in education for disadvantaged


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students.

The project focuses on the middle grades both because of the need to limit the number of schools involved in the program (to assure a manageable lot) and because of the importance of the adolescent years in determining a student's success and ambitions. Any program designed to effect systemic change in the way schools treat and educate disadvantaged youth is well-served by concentrating on the middle grades, and this program has such a focus.

Like our dropout project, this program focuses on creating a local coalition of concern and activity to help educate the students who are falling behind. It differs by concentrating on the middle grades, and particularly, local schools within an educational system. Both, nonetheless, are attempts to find ways to mobilize local communities to address the problems of educating well all of their children in the public schools.