A community crisis

Published 11:40 am Saturday, May 19, 2012

Any sincere discussion about public education in Franklin should begin with this acknowledgment:

Franklin’s public schools have many exceptionally bright, talented students being taught by dedicated, capable teachers. Their accomplishments are chronicled regularly on the pages of this newspaper.

A motivated student with involved parents can get an education in Franklin public schools that’s as good as any in the region. A kid can accomplish big things in life as a result of the foundation laid right here in Franklin.

The problem, however, is this: Those students are the overwhelming minority. In preparing the collective student body for success in an increasingly complex and competitive workforce, Franklin’s schools (and the community at large) are failing by most any measure.

Pick nearly any grade or subject level — or any socioeconomic subdivision — and Franklin is badly trailing the state average in Standards of Learning standardized testing. Take all of the SOL pass rates in every grade and subject and average them together — as our newspaper did recently — and Franklin is next-to-last in the entire state. (Thank God for Petersburg.)

If standardized tests aren’t your cup of tea, look at the steady middle-class flight from Franklin’s public schools to private schools, homeschooling and other public school divisions in the region. Because the middle class in Franklin is predominantly white, middle-class flight is largely white flight.

Total enrollment in Franklin schools has fallen 8 percent over the past decade, a period during which the city’s population has been stable. The student body of Franklin High School was 66 percent African-American in 2003-04. Today, it is 78 percent. Not coincidentally, Southampton High School’s student body has gotten “whiter” — from 50 percent white in 2003-04 to 61 percent white today — more evidence of middle-class flight.

Here’s the reality: Employers looking for a community in which to create jobs are doing informally what our newspaper did more formally. They’re looking at SOL scores grade by grade and subject by subject, putting Franklin beside other communities in a mental spreadsheet, and doing the math. Every day, geographically mobile parents who put a premium on their children’s education are making the same comparison when deciding where to build or buy a home. Franklin is losing.

To be fair, a lot of other stakeholders besides the administration and school board bear responsibility for the state of public education in Franklin.

The City Council must take more seriously its oversight of the schools, especially in making school board appointments. It’s not good enough to simply throw open the podium for nominations and appoint whoever shows up. Council members need to reach out to the best and brightest in each of their wards, twist some arms, and ask citizens to give sacrificially to their community by serving a term or two on the school board.

The council should meet regularly with the school board so that the two bodies can have open dialog and hold each other accountable.

City government must reach out to adjoining localities and vigorously pursue opportunities for shared administrative services so that precious financial resources can be redirected where they are needed most: instruction and the classroom.

The schools and courts must work closely together to hold accountable parents whose children are chronically truant or disruptive.

This newspaper must increase its coverage of public schools: the good, the bad and, yes, even the ugly. If the school board, administration and public-school apologists want to shoot the messenger, so be it.

The business community needs to follow the lead of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce and its new president, Michael Clark, recognize the importance of public schools, and get involved — both in supporting the schools and demanding accountability.

Volunteers, in the spirit of the successful Book Buddies program at S.P. Morton Elementary School, need to step up and mentor children whose parents don’t value the importance of an education.

More and better is needed from the school board and administration. Franklin needs a superintendent who eats, sleeps and breathes this community and the success of its public schools. It needs a school board that stops the whining and sugarcoating, that thickens its skin, and demands more accountability from the central office.

The state of public education in Franklin is a community problem that requires a community solution. We can continue making excuses. Or we can get busy.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.