‘A positive change.’ Why a Columbus public school is getting $1.5 million in private money.

Fox Elementary gets help to support disadvantaged students

Muscogee County School District’s Fox Elementary school in Columbus, Georgia to receive funding from the Mill District over five years to add four staff positions including social worker and assistant principal.
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Muscogee County School District’s Fox Elementary school in Columbus, Georgia to receive funding from the Mill District over five years to add four staff positions including social worker and assistant principal.

“Are these windows bulletproof?”

That’s what a third-grader asked a staff member in the cafeteria of Fox Elementary School after a fatal shooting less than a mile away.

A second-grader was playing outside at the Wilson Homes public housing complex when she heard the gunshots and dove to the ground.

“I just can’t get this out of my mind,” Principal Yvette Scarborough said the boy told her.

“So academics weren’t the most important thing that day,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer.

The shooting is an example of the extraordinary stress many of the 335 students bring to school from disadvantaged homes.

“It’s a different kind of place over here. That’s why the additional supports help the teachers be able to manage that.”

To help break the cycle of poverty in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Columbus, a nonprofit organization called the Mill District has committed to funding four additional staff positions for five years at Fox, among the lowest-performing schools in Georgia.

The investment will total an estimated $1.5 million for salaries and benefits over the five years.

The additional positions are:

  • Social worker
  • Parent-involvement specialist
  • Instructional coach
  • Assistant principal.

The plan

The effectiveness of those positions will be evaluated to determine whether they still are needed after five years, Scarborough said.

The memorandum of understanding with the Muscogee County School District also established a governing body to oversee the school-improvement initiative. The governing body will have representatives from Fox, the Mill District and MCSD.

“The effort started with a handful of individuals that wanted to make a positive change in their community,” Mill District president Justin Krieg told the L-E. “Supporting early childhood education is a big part of that positive change.”

About a year ago, Krieg asked Scarborough how the Mill District could help Fox. She met with the group’s leaders and showed them how funding those positions could improve student learning, especially after a state grant that supported some of those positions expired two years ago.

They agreed to her full request.

“I’m blown away by the generosity of Columbus,” said Scarborough, in her fifth year at Fox and 27th as an educator. “My friends back in Florida get jealous. … It’s not like this everywhere.”

The need

The overall academic performance at Fox is ranked in the bottom 10% of elementary schools in Georgia, with only 15% of its third-graders reading at or above grade level, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement 2018 data.

But statistics also indicate the Fox teachers and staff have accelerated their students’ learning.

Fox had approximately 40% of its fifth-graders reading at or above grade level in 2018, helping it become a “Beating the Odds” school, according to GOSA. That means Fox performs better than schools with similar demographics, such as 80% of its students being considered economically disadvantaged — defined as living in a home receiving food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or identified as homeless, unaccompanied, foster or migrant.

Adding an assistant principal and an instructional coach, Scarborough said, will help teachers develop their skills. Approximately 80% of Fox’s 27 teachers have five years or less experience, she said.

Having a full-time social worker and a full-time parenting specialist, she said, will “take care of the wraparound services and the needs of our students and families within the school in a better way than we have before.”

Wraparound services are factors that affect learning but are beyond the scope of a teacher’s curriculum in the classroom. They include medical care, mental health and “social services that they may need but may not know where to go and receive those,” Scarborough said, “and so we’ll be able to connect them with the services already available in the community.”

Barriers to learning could be as simple as lacking an alarm clock to get to school on time, she said, or as complicated as vocabulary deficits.

“Sometimes there’s such a delay in some of them developmentally that they really just need a little more help,” 17-year Fox kindergarten teacher Carmen Estes told the L-E. “They come to us several years behind.”

Another factor is the school’s 40% mobility rate, measuring the number of students who stop attending Fox during the school year, Scarborough said.

And, at home, food often is scarce, she said. That’s why Scarborough seeks a sponsor to provide backpacks full of food to help students eat well during the weekends.

Where and who

The Mill District focuses on four neighborhoods served by Fox: Anderson Village, Bibb Village, City Village and North Highland, where closed textile mills have left a struggling but tight-knit community.

Krieg, the director of planning and programs for the Historic Columbus Foundation, is joined on the Mill District board by:

  • Leah Braxton, W.C. Bradley Company
  • Brad Turner, community investor
  • Marquette McKnight, Media, Marketing and More
  • Ken Henson, attorney
  • Len Williams and Lisa Walters, the Housing Authority of Columbus
  • Cathy Williams, NeighborWorks Columbus and Muscogee County School Board
  • Rodney Close, Boys & Girls Club of the Chattahoochee Valley
  • Carrie Strickland, Truth Spring Academy and Highland Church.
  • Scarborough, Billy Holbrook of MercyMed and Kim Jenkins of Open Door Community House are ex-officio members.

Estes thanked them as she said, “I love that we’ve got somebody from the outside that’s looking in, saying, ‘Hey, we want to help them. We want to help them grow. We want to help them to be good citizens. We want these kids to grow and be a part of this community in a productive way.’ So I’m really excited about it.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.