Kieta: It’s time to improve educational opportunities for all

July 23, 2011 

One of the best public high schools in Georgia happens to be in the Muscogee County School District. Ditto for the best public elementary school.

So how could the district that operates these exceptional schools possibly end the 2010-2011 school year with a big fat “F” on its Adequate Yearly Progress report card?

The complex answer to that question strikes like a switchblade to the heart of what’s wrong with public education in Columbus.

A prep-school quality education within a public school is available here -- but only for a chosen few who are admitted to one of the district’s “total magnet” schools (Britt David Elementary and Columbus High). The rest are relegated to the other schools that lack the focus and academic success of the total magnets.

Public education is a tough business, and most parents understand that unfortunate fact. I have no doubt that the MCSD’s leaders want to foster excellence and that they’re ashamed at the horrific AYP numbers.

Now they’re on the clock to fix things. District leaders should be embarrassed at the dichotomy in academic achievement they’ve created -- one where parents struggle to enroll their children in one of the “super” schools, only to too often find that door closed because of limited space. The competition can be fierce. The perception that these schools are better -- whether it’s correct or not -- is a by-product of the system they’ve created, and the numbers seem to back up that perception.

What results is a system of planned educational segregation that by design sequesters all of the “smart” kids at certain schools. Those of you who have a child enrolled at one of these schools probably think this is just fine. You are in the minority.

Our experiences

I wasn’t in Columbus long before people started whispering in my ear.

“Hey, Joe. You have a high school-aged stepdaughter, right? You really need to get her into Columbus High. It’s the ‘good’ school.”

To which I answered, “Are the other schools ‘bad’?”

Astoundingly, just about every single one of these nice people said “Yes!”

I started my job as executive editor of the Ledger-Enquirer in late August of 2010 after more than two years as editor of a newspaper in upstate New York. My wife has two school-age daughters who attend public schools, and we have a preschool-age son who will head off to kindergarten in the fall of 2012. The quality of their education is personal to us.

The Columbus public school setup is entirely different than anything we’ve experienced elsewhere. I won’t kid you: navigating it has been a minefield fraught with intrigue and urban legends.

My wife and I were skeptical about what these people told us about the schools being “bad,” so we started our own research.

It took not much more than a simple Google search to discover that students at Columbus High and Britt David score far better on standardized tests than students at the district’s other schools. Britt David, for example, is so highly regarded that the Georgia Superintendent of Schools swooped in on a helicopter earlier this year to bestow a big award. That was front-page news at the time.

So how do you get your kid enrolled in these schools? That’s a prime topic of discussion among parents at soccer and Little League fields across town.

Out-of-towners -- and there are many of us thanks to Fort Benning and the area’s major corporate employers -- start out with two strikes. The setup is endlessly complex -- “total” magnets, “video game” magnets, “international baccalaureate” programs, etc. Most parents who move here probably think a “magnet” is something that’s found on the family refrigerator, so there’s a learning curve. And some who have lived here their entire lives might not even know of all of the programs that are available.

Britt David has a great website with all sorts of information about the success of its computer magnet program -- but it doesn’t mention a word about how to enroll a child.

I then moved to the MCSD site. Not a word there about how to enroll your child in the best public elementary school in Georgia.

So I called the school. I told the receptionist that we recently had moved here, my son would start kindergarten in 2012 and I wanted him to attend Britt David Academy.

She said I could stop by the office to put him on the waiting list, but his chances weren’t good. Apparently the fall 2012 kindergarten class list already contains the names of more than 250 children. Only 88 are admitted each year after passing an admissions test, and only the first 110 kids on the list are tested. Other factors, like race and ethnicity, are factored into the selection process and potentially could move a child into one of the 88 seats.

When did this list begin? She said that some children had been on it since they were a month old -- as soon as they got a Social Security number, which is needed for the listing. Does a quality public school education really require signing up one-month-olds? And how would parents know this drill unless they had connections or someone whispered in their ear? There were no reasonable answers.

Enrollment in Columbus High is more straightforward, with eighth graders gaining entrance through a test. Transferring from another district can be next to impossible due to limited class space and curriculum differences between schools.

Segregating the ‘smart’ kids

If Britt David and Columbus High are such runaway successes, then why haven’t the academic programs been rolled out to other schools?

Britt David ties its high achievement to the “computer magnet” educational model, but I’m convinced it would be a resounding success even if its students used worn pencils and tattered textbooks. Administrators and teachers there are among the best the district has to offer and they cherry-pick the top students from throughout the county, eliminating those who misbehave or struggle academically. It’s essentially a selective private academy paid for with your tax dollars. And the parents -- those who know enough to sign up their children a month after they were born -- most likely will be involved in their kids’ education, creating an exceptional learning atmosphere. It’s great for all of them. How about the rest of us?

Much the same can be said about Columbus High, which, as a “total magnet,” similarly picks the best students (and the best baseball players) from throughout the county and offers a prep school education and an eleven-time state championship baseball team.

Those who defend the current setup say the MCSD is all about choice. And that’s certainly true. Most districts do not offer the option of magnet programs. But there’s ample evidence that the system can be goosed if a parent knows how the game is played or has connections. And what choice do parents have when the total magnet classes are full?

The recent AYP results don’t lie. Some school administrators and board members have rightfully criticized the AYP program, but it’s the only real benchmark we have to determine how well a school district is doing its job. It’s clear the MCSD is in deep trouble no matter how you interpret the latest numbers. The results repudiate the current setup, unless district leaders are OK with a handful of schools scoring well and a majority of the rest scoring poorly. We will never know how many of the district’s schools would have made AYP goals if their best and brightest students weren’t attending one of the total magnet schools.

We’ve asked district leaders what they think needs to be done to improve the quality of education. None of them mentioned changing the magnet programs or creating more magnet schools.

A more equitable system needs to be developed. Other school districts I’ve encountered operate gifted programs at each school for high achievers. This elevates the academic experience for those who qualify. These students in turn add an essential dynamic to the rest of the student body. It’s a win-win for everyone, and it leaves no student on the outside looking in.

It’s time for the whispers to stop. And it’s time to improve the educational opportunity for all MCSD students. To do anything less is a big fat “F.”

Joseph Kieta is executive editor of the Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at jkieta@ledger-enquirer.com.

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