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Retired APS teacher: In school system as inequitable as APS, hard to achieve equality

I am getting a lot of commentary on the APS sentencing, which I plan to share in the next few days.

This piece comes from a former APS teacher who taught in poor and affluent APS schools. And she says it was a lot easier to meet testing goals in the wealthier schools because of what the parents put into their children's education.

By Carolyn LaMay Smith George

As a retired educator of 37 years (elementary, middle, high school and college instructor), I am outraged at the comportment of this week's courtroom drama.

Let’s look at the elephant not discussed in the room: Parental participation in your child’s education.

The teacher is one component. I heard the judge say thousands of children have been hurt by this cheating scandal.

Well, I noticed all the schools accused were poor, black schools. So let’s discuss this. You have to be dedicated to stay in a poor black school where all the children in a class might be below the national norm, where there are 9-years-olds in second grade; where the children are eating their breakfast in the classroom before classes start and then lunch, which may be their last meal of the day.

You have teachers in those schools who pay out of their own pockets for supplies because these children have none. Children have PE in the hallway, or cafeteria after lunch because the schools lack gyms. It’s hard being in a classroom where you must be mother, nurse, counselor, psychologist and disciplinarian, along with teacher.

Sometimes there is little room for teaching.

And where are the parents?

I heard parents say during the trial their child was destroyed by test scores being changed. First of all test scores are not the only indicator used to promote or place children or measure teacher competency. Daily work, attendance, grades, IEP conferences ( with parent(s), teachers of student, counselor and an administrator) are used to evaluate student progress if deemed necessary by the administration.

Where have you been now that your child is in high school reading on a fifth-grade level? Every year a teacher has at least two conferences about your child, plus numerous others to inform you of below average work. (deficiency notices)

Did you show up? Did you take the advice the counselor, principal, teacher to consider another school where your child could get better services or did you refuse the advice and stay in the school that could not provide adequate services for your child?

Or, are you one of the parents who only comes up to the school when your child is in a fight or doing something they're not supposed to be doing and got suspended — and then blames the principal or teacher instead of disciplining your child?

In one school I worked, students didn't know their alphabet. (Some were in first grade.) They had free Pre-K in the school building but the parents didn’t bring them. I asked why and heard various excuses  -- they did not feel like bringing the child, they were working, they were high on drugs or alcohol. The school had a bus to pick up children, and some parents could even walk to the school. But they did not feel Pre-K was important.

You have to know the value of a free education to take advantage of it.

I have worked in poor black schools, but retired after 16 years at a Buckhead school where supplies are provided by the PTA. So there is no worry about supplies. The children do not watch TV in the morning in school or eat breakfast in the classroom. They have morning work that they must do and then write in their journals.

I asked a kindergartner why she knew so much. She said, “When I get home, I sit at the kitchen table, have a snack and do my homework with my mom. Then my dad comes home and helps me also.”

I said, “Don’t you go outside and play?”

Her reply: “Yes, sometimes if I finish my work first.”

We must have more universal emphasis on the value of an education.

These Buckhead teachers do not have the pressure of downtown administrators trying to get their students above the national standards — just about all of them are.

And it’s not just the family incomes —these parents are caring parents involved in every inch of their child’s school day. You can’t just send your child to a good school and expect the teachers to do it all. I understand many parents are unable to attend because of work commitments, but conferences are a must.

How much money was spent on this trial that could have been put to use in some of these failing schools?

I had a friend who was trying to get rotten flooring fixed in her school in southwest Atlanta and was told there was no money --- while APS rebuilt E. Rivers, refurbished Sutton Middle (once North Atlanta High) and built Springdale Elementary in the Ponce de Leon area. Not to mention the mold problem in Historic Washington High, while APS built an 11-story high school on Northside Parkway.

How about Sutton Middle School getting new tennis courts when Parks Middle School's boilers went out and the children were freezing in the school and wearing coats to class?

And the next elephant in the room -- those bonuses:

APS had a bonus system— if your school reached its targeted goal set at the beginning of the year each person earned a bonus.

-70% of your goal you got $500.

-80% of your goal you got $1,500.

-90% of your goal you got $2,000-$2,500.

Everyone -- teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers -- received the bonus. The bonus system was set up to encourage not discourage.

APS had a rally in the convention center. Every school brought a sign with their school name, and some brought banners to show their achievement. But when I looked around at those who had achieved their goals, most of the white schools were on the floor and the black schools who hadn’t reached their goals were in the balcony.

Then Dr. Hall said, “I hope some of you will be on the floor next time.”

I felt bad for the teachers in the balcony and wrote Dr. Hall a letter stating that I was sure my colleagues worked even harder in those schools because they had more hurdles. She agreed.

Now, don’t get me wrong--- it felt good to get a bonus every year (ours was guaranteed because our students performed so well) so we did not feel the pressure that some schools felt.

I believe Dr. Hall was trying to do an encouraging thing by starting the bonuses. (Teachers don’t make high salaries.) But, as time went on and schools did not come up to standards, I believe they began to feel the pressure of not achieving. There lies the fault. In a school system as inequitable as APS, it is hard to achieve equality.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.