Viewpoint

A tale of two school districts – and the N.C. legislature

As superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, left, has led her Missouri school district to a 92 percent on-time graduation rate by targeting poverty.
As superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, left, has led her Missouri school district to a 92 percent on-time graduation rate by targeting poverty. Washington Post

This is the tale of two cities – or more accurately, two school districts – where the majority of students are poor.

The first is the Achievement School District in Tennessee, a district of 29 low-performing schools in Nashville and Memphis overseen by one superintendent. Most of the schools are managed by charter operators, though a few are under control of the local school districts.

After four years of operation, the ASD shows no improvement in student achievement over non-ASD schools. Research from Vanderbilt University also shows that among the ASD schools, those managed by charter operators fared less well than those schools left under local control.

The report adds to the controversy over the ASD. In the past year, 22 legislative bills were filed over concerns with ASD, many in response to parental dissatisfaction. Now this week the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators has called for a moratorium on adding any more schools to the ASD.

So why are North Carolina legislators looking to Tennessee’s failed ASD as a model for schools here?

State Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, has been spearheading legislation that would establish a school district similar to the Tennessee ASD. Under his initial proposal, the state would turn over five of the lowest-performing schools to charter operators who would answer to one superintendent. That proposal has been modified to put the focus on replacing principals at the selected schools.

Such a plan won’t help students in North Carolina, just as the ASD hasn’t helped those in Tennessee. Fortunately, North Carolina legislators can look to a successful model in one of the poorest school districts in Missouri.

North of St. Louis is Jennings, an impoverished community where only 13 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

At the same time that Tennessee was establishing the ASD, Jennings hired Tiffany Anderson as their new superintendent. She zeroed in on poverty as the issue keeping students from achieving. Instead of demonizing teachers or parents, she tasked her staff with opening a live-in shelter for homeless high school teens, operating a food and clothes bank, providing regular access to pediatricians and mental health clinicians, and offering laundry services to needy families.

Instead of doubling down on test prep, she restored funding to arts, music, and dance classes and began a college prep program on Saturdays. She set aside district money to pay for dual credit classes for high school students. After graduation, the district helps students find employment.

Targeting poverty is making a real difference in Jennings. This past year 92% of the students graduated on time, the majority going on to post-secondary education or the military.

Legislators don’t have to look further than western North Carolina to learn that making more resources available to struggling families is how you improve schools. Researchers tracking children in the Great Smoky Mountains noted statistical improvements in parenting, mental health, and decision making among Cherokee Indians once the local casino began disbursing $4K of annual unearned income to each adult.

We know what works in education – making sure all children are healthy and secure enough to learn.

We also know what doesn’t work – ignoring the lessons of failed reform efforts and pretending that poverty doesn’t matter.

Are North Carolina’s legislators willing to learn the difference?

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at kmcspadden@comporium.net.

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