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School success: what will it take and can we do it?

School success: what will it take and can we do it?

By SAM F. HART, MARY ALICE MORGAN and PETER C. BROWN - Special to The Telegraph

 Everyone agrees that education is the key to success in the 21st century -- and that our kids are now in competition with kids from across the world. Everyone agrees that in Bibb County, poor educational outcomes are holding our community back. In recent opinion pieces in The Telegraph, Kirby Godsey has argued that we need better schools, while David Oedel has argued that we need better parents and a focus in school on the better kids. Godsey is right, and Bibb Superintendent Romain Dallemand and his leadership team are moving strongly to reform and transform the Bibb public schools. Oedel is right about the need for parent engagement with the schools and their children’s education. He is wrong, however, if he supposes that the easiest kids to deal with are also always the kids with the most potential.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

At-risk children

Children are born wanting to learn. They are sponges, eagerly emulating adult competencies. So, what happens? Many factors can put children at risk of failure. Some of them are obvious: premature birth, a mentally ill parent, child abuse, malnutrition, chronic illness, family conflict, an incarcerated parent or severe trauma. Other risk factors are more subtle: death of a parent, divorce, poverty, uneducated parents, a threatening or demeaning environment, negative peer pressure and even stress. Luckily, children are also very resilient. They can handle and overcome many of these risks.

When a child has four or more of these risk factors, however, the chances of failure and bad behavior increase. Some of these high-risk children still manage their circumstances and come out OK. But as the pioneering research of Emmy Warner (Overcoming the Odds, 1992) discovered, up to half of such high-risk children are damaged. Damaged children tend to fail at school, engage in criminal activities, become teen mothers and fathers, be unemployed, have poor health, lack life skills, etc. In surmounting childhood risks, the assets or positive factors in a child’s life are important counterbalances to the risk factors.  At-risk children will be more resilient if they have a caring, competent adult in their lives -- or if they have normal early cognitive development, good schools, positive personal experiences, valued talents or socioeconomic advantages. As Warner showed, with “protective” factors up to 80 percent of high-risk children will grow up to be competent adults. By any measure, Bibb County has many, many high-risk children, particularly in areas of concentrated, generational poverty.

Key developmental gateways

“School success” in our contemporary world means admission to and success in a postsecondary educational program. Whether it is college or vocational training, high school graduates must be ready and able to move ahead with advanced learning. What are the key gateways to prepare for advanced learning? Early-childhood cognitive development, particularly language skills, is essential. Poor children are almost a year behind in normal vocabulary development by the time they enter school. Reading by third grade is not only the best predictor of school success, but failure to read by third grade is an excellent predictor of future incarceration. Some states use the third-grade reading results to forecast the number of prison cells they will need in 10 years.

The jump from middle school to high school is where the dropout problem originates. If students are not literate in math and science, if they already have behavior problems, if they lack competent role models, they will either not graduate or will lack the skills necessary for success in post-secondary educational programs.

What will it take?

This evidence points to a comprehensive strategy to help at-risk children overcome the factors that threaten their school success and success in life. First, we should target resources more carefully at the three developmental gateways to success: early childhood development, reading by third grade and transition to high school.

Second, we should focus on strengthening the positive factors that increase at-risk children’s resilience: caring mentors, good schools, educational enrichment and engaged parents.

For the past year and a half, a group of community leaders have been working with the Bibb County School System to develop such a comprehensive strategy for Southwest High School and its feeder schools in the Tindall Heights and Unionville neighborhoods.

Working closely with United Way, Mercer University, Central Georgia Technical College, River Edge Behavioral Health Center and the Macon Housing Authority, seven community nonprofits have designed a collaborative approach involving 28 community partners that will deliver services for at-risk children and their families from birth through college to career, zero to 23: Macon Children’s Promise Neighborhood. Parents, neighborhood leaders and local churches will be crucial partners in this effort.

The model for this unprecedented local community collaboration is the Harlem Children’s Zone, where the achievement gap between black and white children has been eliminated in math and significantly reduced in language arts.

Serving 1,200 children in its charter schools, with supportive services to another 9,200 children who live in the 97-block zone, HCZ provides a pathway of services that follow children from birth until they enroll in college.

The success of this initiative has prompted the federal Department of Education to propose an ambitious new program to see if the HCZ success can be replicated in other communities.

The “Promise Neighborhood” program awarded 21 one-year planning grants across the country last year, including two in Georgia: Athens/Clarke County Family Connection Partnership/Communities In Schools of Athens and Morehouse Medical School. (The grant has to go to a community nonprofit or a university, working in collaboration with the local school system.)

Last year’s proposal from Macon Children’s Promise Neighborhood was scored highly, but with over 300 applications for 21 grants, it wasn’t funded. The partnership has applied again this year, with a broader partnership and a more comprehensive project design.

A key aspect of this collaborative approach is the development of a common database and shared system to track individual students’ progress in a timely fashion. We need to know what’s working and what isn’t.

We need to know which children are falling through the cracks. We need to know when changes in their family situation are putting children at increased risk. Above all, we need to know if key benchmarks are being reached. Not just graduation rates, but access to health care, school readiness, achievement scores, suspensions and discipline referrals, and admission to postsecondary programs.

Can we do it?

The partners in this initiative are there because they know that what we have been doing as a community -- with all the best intentions -- hasn’t worked well enough to change the systemic factors that lock people into generational poverty. We need more than change; we need transformation.

For that reason, community leadership has come together to move the initiative forward. Macon Children’s Promise Neighborhood has the support of the Peyton Anderson Foundation, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. President William Underwood of Mercer University, President Michael Moye of Central Georgia Technical College, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, Dallemand, and I are also champions of this effort.

Thus, Godsey and Oedel are fundamentally right; we need to change our educational priorities. First, we need to get on the same page. No successful school reform in the country has been driven by a superintendent or school board without strong community engagement.

Second, we need to start somewhere. We have often spread our resources too thinly to be effective. Like the Harlem’s Children’s Zone, we need to concentrate and coordinate resources on a high-need target neighborhood and its schools.

Third, we need to stay with it. We should settle on a broad strategy and give it time to work. Harlem Children’s Zone took more than 10 years to begin to achieve its goals, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. There are no silver bullets.

Fourth, we need to strongly engage parents as partners and leaders in this effort. Engaged parents are the key to children’s success.

Fifth, we need to demand results. Measures of accountability will show us what works and what doesn’t. Then we need to have the courage to change what doesn’t work and invest in what does.

These are, of course, community priorities as much as educational. Can we do it? With your help we know we can.

We invite you to join us to forge a common vision for our most vulnerable children. Nothing could be more important to Macon’s future. If you are interested in ways to support this initiative please contact Mary Alice Morgan Morgan at the Office of Service Learning, Mercer University (478-301-5422) or Peter Brown (478-301-5372).

Sam F. Hart Sr., chair, Partners Council Macon Children’s Promise Neighborhood.

Mary Alice Morgan, Ph.D,. & Peter C. Brown, Ph.D., co-directors

Macon Children’s Promise Neighborhood.

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