Poverty, unrealistic expectations catch up with Muscogee County schools

dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 14, 2011 

Sure, the preliminary AYP report for the Muscogee County School District was painful. But what really seems to bother people is the fact that so many large school systems, especially those in the Atlanta area, outperformed our local district.

Even before I wrote that we rank 18th out of 19 of the state’s largest school systems, readers were wondering why we can’t be like, say, Forsyth County, which saw 91 percent of its schools make adequate yearly progress.

At Monday night’s school board work session, Superintendent Susan Andrews argued that it’s unfair to compare Muscogee County schools to counties like Forsyth.

The reason? Eighteen percent of Forsyth students get free or reduced lunches, compared to 61 percent in Muscogee County. In other words, more children are living in poverty in Columbus than in Cumming.

She has a point.

The cut-off for a child to be eligible for the free lunch program is an annual income of about $19,000 for a two-person household; $24,000 for a three-person household; and $29,000 for a four-person household. The cut-off for reduced lunches starts at about $27,000 for a three-person household and increases about $7,000 for each additional family member.

The free or reduced lunch program is a pretty good way to distinguish between the haves and the have-nots.

Andrews said that children living in poverty enter school with a vocabulary of 500 words and 25 hours of being read to by their parents, compared to 1,500 words and 1,000 hours for other children.

Makes sense, especially when you look at Muscogee County schools. Of the 33 percent of our schools that made AYP, 49.7 percent of those students were in the free/reduced lunch program. Of the 67 percent that failed, 77.7 percent of the students got free or reduced lunches.

The elementary school with the lowest percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches? Britt David, the total magnet school with its pick of students from around the county, at 14 percent.

The middle school with the lowest percentage? Blackmon Road, the only middle school in the county to make AYP, at 30 percent.

The high school with the lowest percentage? Columbus High, another total magnet, at 17 percent.

So well-fed, well-adjusted children make better students. And if you want to put together a dream team of the area’s best students, you avoid the poor kids.

Again, it makes sense.

In fact, all nine of the large districts that beat the state AYP average of 71 percent had fewer children in the free/reduced lunch program than Muscogee County. The top two -- Fayette and Forsyth -- had less than a quarter of their students in the program. But the third-best district, Hall County, had 57 percent of its students on free or reduced lunches. That’s just 4 points lower than Muscogee.

Andrews pointed out Monday night that none of those schools are in our comparison group. So who’s in our comparison group?

Carol Bradshaw, the district’s director of research, said Muscogee’s comparison group is identified by the state and includes districts with 10,000 or more students and a free/reduced lunch population of 60 percent or greater.

Six of those counties -- Clayton, Chatham, Dougherty, Bibb, Richmond and DeKalb -- were on my original list of the 19 largest districts, and all of them turn out to have a higher percentage of free/reduced lunch students than Muscogee County. And all but one of them, DeKalb, have a higher percentage of schools making AYP.

For example, 80 percent of the 49,000 students in the Clayton County district are in the free/reduced lunch program, compared to 61 percent in Muscogee County. But 55 percent of the schools in Clayton County made AYP, compared to 33 percent in Muscogee.

The state puts four smaller districts in our comparison group. They are Liberty (Hinesville), Troup (LaGrange), Spalding (Griffin) and Clarke (Athens). Only Troup at 60 percent has a lower percentage of free/reduced lunch students than Muscogee. All of them beat Muscogee by at least 27 percentage points in making AYP.

In other words, Muscogee’s true comparison group, the one district administrators are pointing me to, takes away the wealthier districts from my original group, leaves the poorest six, and adds four more poor counties.

Fair enough.

But nothing changes much. Instead of tying with Richmond County for 17th place out of 19 districts and barely finishing ahead of last-placed De- Kalb, we’re tied with Richmond County for ninth place out of 11 districts and barely finishing ahead of last-placed DeKalb.

Why did we fall so far so fast?

Our schools haven’t gotten worse in the past year. In fact, over the past five years we’ve been trending growth in most subgroups of AYP.

The problem? The bar’s been raised to an unrealistic height.

For example, in math for grades 3-8, the goal in 2007 was a passing rate of 58.3 on the CRCT. We had a 75 and looked fine.

In 2008, the goal was raised 1.2 points to 59.5, but we made a 72 and looked fine again. In 2009, the goal stayed the same, and we jumped to a 73. Fine again.

Last year, the goal was raised 8.1 points to 67.6, but we scored a 75 and sailed over the bar.

This year, the goal was raised another 8.1 points to 75.7. We slipped a point and came crashing down.

Next year, the goal shoots up to 83.8. In 2013, it’s up to 91.9. In 2014, as you probably know, the goal is a perfect 100 percent.

That’s three years away, and we’ve already been left behind.

Counties like Chatham, Bibb and Richmond had already hit their ceiling and slid into the pool. This year, we joined them. Next year, a bunch more schools will join us down here at the bottom.

That’s why the state is seeking a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

Meanwhile, Muscogee County is struggling any way you look at it. We’re dealing with poverty, which is hard enough when you don’t have arbitrary standards and a changing curriculum.

No, we didn’t suddenly grow weak. Our weaknesses have been exposed.

The hard part will be figuring out what to do about them.

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