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We Must Commit To Improving Schools
3/9/2016 2:18:48 PM

By Barney Blakeney

It was my turn to spring for lunch with former Charleston Education Network Director Jon Butzon a couple of months ago. It was our second since meeting I don’t know how long ago - 10, 15 years ago? He picked up the tab the first time. Jon’s one of the good guys - a white guy unafraid to have a discussion about race and its impact in our community. Jon’s thing is public education. I go to him for an unbiased perspective on education issues.

Our last meeting really came about as a result of me going through my phone book. I was looking for a number and saw Jon’s. Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott always gets on me about calling her only when I need a comment for stories, so I try to touch bases with folks just dry ‘long so.

It was Jon’s turn. But of course, he couldn’t just have lunch without any business conversation. He had to push his thoughts about local public schools. Although he’s retired and no longer is CEN director, Jon still advocates for kids and schools. Some folks’ work is their life’s work even if they’re not working. Jon’s one of those people. It’s in his blood. So over sandwiches and iced tea, he was giving me all this information about student academic performance and achievement gaps. I wasn’t surprised last week reading a news story about student deficiencies in language arts and math. I’ve gotten that kind of information from Jon and others for years.

The news report started with the tale of a local manufacturing supervisor who noticed that line employees had difficulties with basic reading and math skills. These were high school graduates on jobs in the work-a-day world who struggled to perform basic functions because they lacked math and language arts skills.

I see that just buying stuff. I’m getting to the point where I’m reluctant to offer exact change to store clerks after they’ve punched in the amount of transactions in the cash register. More often than not you screw them up with changes that require them to do basic math.

So for years, it hasn’t taken conversations with people like Jon for me to understand that the kids we graduate from local high schools aren’t always academically equipped to deal with today’s business world. However I was dismayed at last week’s reports that some business folks again are trying to figure out how best to make our schools do what they’re supposed to - educate children. I was dismayed because it seems, at least to me, we’re perpetuating the same dog and pony show that produced our current state of academic inadequacy in the first place.

In recent weeks school officials, community folks and local business people have been debating whether outsourcing public school administration is a viable option in the effort to improve low performing schools and more capable graduates. My response is, that’s what we pay school administrators to do!

Last month CCSD Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait recommended discontinuing a teacher incentive program that threw millions of dollars at people who produced no appreciative results. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels CCSD for decades has perpetuated a culture of mediocrity and deception that benefits an ineffective bureaucracy. As Malcolm X might say, we’re being hoodwinked, bamboozled. As Jon Butzon often tells me, no one went into a meeting and decided they’d shortchange certain kids in Charleston County School District. But they also didn’t decide certain kids would not be shortchanged.

Sure we’ve got to do something now that our schools are so inadequate. And doing anything is better than doing nothing. But I think paramount to all the stuff we’re about to do, we must commit. It’s all about commitment.

That word comes to mind when I think about my own matriculation through Charleston County School District at a time when shortchanging Black kids was the accepted way to provide public education. But despite the intentional and condoned inequities of the segregated school system I experienced, most of us achieved academic success because our teachers and administrators were committed.They weren’t provided incentives. Most often, they had to go into their own pockets to provide basic resources and supplies for their students. We shared outdated books. We weren’t provided take home lap tops, but we learned and went out into the work world prepared for most of the challenges we met.

I know the world has changed and that the challenges today’s high school graduates face are much different from those I faced. But I’m convinced that improving the academic outcome experienced by today’s graduates will depend more on the commitment of our teachers and administrators than the hardware or methods we give them.

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