What needs done to improve Franklin schools?

Published 10:59 am Saturday, June 16, 2012

by Robert N. “Bob” Holt

In the mid-1990s, Franklin High School was designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School. This was a great honor, especially for a high school as small as Franklin.

Only the top four to five percent of high schools are designated with this award. The designation requires that students achieve at very high levels, especially among disadvantaged and minority students.

The Franklin High principal then, Dr. Donahoe, was invited to the White House to receive this award from President Clinton.

A recent report commissioned by The Tidewater News indicates that the Franklin School system ranks 132 of 133 districts in Virginia. How can a school system fall that far in 15 years? More importantly, what can be done to get it back on track?

I worked for two Fortune 500 corporations looking for sites in which to build paper mills and hire thousands of employees and know that the ranking of local schools is a key statistic in their search.

Question one is how did Franklin fall this far this fast?

First, in trying to do what was best, Franklin city leadership

oversaw the construction of numerous public housing projects. Suddenly the schools were flooded with disadvantaged children, who typically were raised by single parents with little educational background.

These children were intelligent, but lacked motivation and development at home in preparation for starting kindergarten. Their parents meant well, but just didn’t know what to do. Thus, these children were far behind many of their peers on day one.

Through the extraordinary efforts of retiring S.P. Morton Elementary School Principal Don Spengeman and his dedicated teachers, most of these disadvantaged students had caught up by the fourth grade. (I have known Don for over 25 years, and you will not find a better elementary school principal anywhere in the United States).

The second reason for the fall is a culture of lowering standards. The best recent example was the “no grade below 60” policy implemented by the central office last fall without board approval.

The administration’s justification was that failing to turn in an assignment would be a grade of zero, and the student would not be able to overcome that.

In my view, students should suffer those consequences and make certain the work is done on time to avoid the zero. Situations that occur beyond the student’s control can be resolved with a consultation with the teacher.

A broad policy mandating a minimum grade of 60 allows marginal students to pass with minimum effort.

Franklin schools have lowered standards, babied students and made so-called achievement so easy as not to “hurt their feelings” for failure. Franklin even paid students to come to study sessions via a government grant! Unbelievable.

It is time they learn to accept failure and build upon it. Employers do not accept less than your best effort and Franklin schools should not either.

A third reason for the fall is many students believe it is not cool to be a good student, thus they do not even try. They do not prepare for class, do not pay attention, and do not put forth much effort on standardized tests. They are a disruption and should be removed from regular classes.

A fourth reason relates to the perception of parents that their children are not being challenged. The emphasis had shifted away from programs geared to all levels of abilities (such as enrichment) to programs that focused on the bottom percentile students. Many high achieving students and their parents were left to find other alternatives and left the system.

What must Franklin do to fix this problem?

It is obvious that a new central office administration must replace the current administration. The superintendent and her immediate academic leadership staff have failed miserably.

We should not necessarily blame principals and certainly not teachers. Teachers have been overburdened with unnecessary central office paperwork that has taken valuable time from their class preparation. Which is more important — effective teaching or making paperwork look good?

The second step is to raise standards. We are not doing favors for graduating students by giving them a diploma they did not earn.

The third step is to listen to teachers and parents. They know better than anyone what can be done.

If Franklin does not fix its schools, no one will want to move here, no industry will locate here, property values will decline further, hospitals will close, businesses will close and all will suffer.

Think about it.

ROBERT N. “BOB” HOLT, a Franklin native, is a professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, N.C. His e-mail address is hrobert@vt.edu.