Education Opinion

What Went Down in Georgia

By Susan Graham — March 31, 2010 3 min read
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On Sunday, The Washington Post posed the question, “Our kids need great teachers. Who makes the grade?” Well, it might help if there were a data based rubric of what makes a great teacher, but Marc Fisher walked away from his experience observing potential with the Center for Inspired Teaching acknowledging that

Maybe there is such a thing as an "inspired teacher" -- someone who listens well and takes students at face value, someone with high standards and perseverance who is also warm, vulnerable and loving. Sounds like a character who exists only in fiction -- and that's part of the problem with the school reform movement.

That’s a little vague, but maybe it will help some of the overworked school system HR directors. They’ve got their hands full this fall because it seems that we’ve discovered a new fix for broken schools. Just load up a bunch of silver bullets and fire the whole staff (including the cafeteria lady and the custodian). Surely everyone has heard that on February 25th in Central Falls, Rhode Island, all the teachers at Central Falls High School were fired. The story was blasted across the evening news. The New York Times covered the story.The blogosphere buzzed.

The general consensus: It was an unfortunate but necessary wake up call to the teacher unions who were inflexible and unwilling to negotiate. Yes it was a drastic measure, the argument went, but when you have a strong union, there just isn’t any alternative. After all, think about the children. And that’s interesting because,

On March 25, in Savannah, Georgia, all the teachers at A.E. Beach High School were fired. Other than The Savannah Morning News and Education Week, no one seemed to care.

Ho Hum...just another school where firing all the teachers had been done. More union trouble? Hmmm. Says here that Georgia is a right-to-work state with no collective bargaining. No union--no union bashing potential---no news.

Even though A.E. Beach was a “me-too” firing, I was curious, so I checked out The Savannah Morning News to see what I could find out about what was so bad at Beach. Well, first of all, this isn’t a big deal. Seems this is a local custom in Savannah.

Mounting state pressure over its Needs Improvement quagmire has prompted Savannah-Chatham schools officials to take drastic measures at several schools. In 2006-07, all employees at Spencer Elementary were replaced. This year, Savannah High was divided up into small academically themed schools, and Bartlett Middle, like Beach, will purge its faculty, staff and administration this summer.

But anyway, about Beach High School. It was marked as a loser school from the get go when, in 2003, teachers were told they better make sure No Child was Left Behind. That’s probably why

Crime and poverty moved in. Neighborhood problems affected everything from graduation rates and safety to test scores and teacher turnover. After Beach was stripped of its prized medical magnet program, most of the top performing students assigned to the school left for private schools or public school specialty programs. Others took advantage of the No Child Left Behind Act's accountability clause, which allows students to transfer out of Needs Improvement Schools. Of those who continued to enroll at Beach, nearly half had not mastered their middle school curriculum.

Well, gee, who’d want to go to school there anyway? It’s pretty obvious the staff didn’t really believe all students can learn because they didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress. Hmm...even though...

During the 2007-08 school year, Beach was the district's only traditional high school that raised its pass rates on the Georgia High School Graduation and Writing tests. The number of students who passed the math portion of the test rose from 82 percent to 88 percent; the social studies pass rate went from 59 percent to 65 percent. Their gains in math and social studies exceeded the state average. Even their special needs students averaged a 71 percent pass rate, exceeding their peers statewide. Last year, math SAT scores jumped 10 points, and the dropout rate fell below the state average. This year, Beach raised its graduation rate by more than 16 percentage points.

But you know, you can only put up with excuses and half efforts for so long and Georgia had quite frankly given them enough time. Because of leniency

Principal Deonn Stone and her staff were able to stave off the state for four years by making slow, steady academic gains. That gave them time to battle through the social and economic issues that had driven down outcomes for years. But Savannah-Chatham public schools Superintendent Thomas Lockamy met with Beach High employees Thursday to inform them the state is raising its No Child Left Behind Act benchmarks this year and won't give them any more time to catch up.

Sure, the superintendent acknowledged that Dr. Stone and her staff have made tremendous progress in moving this school from where it was five years ago, but not enough to push it over the line. So instead, Georgia pushed the Beach teachers under the bus. Savannah mayor Otis Johnson, an alumnus of Beach High School, explained

I regret the work Dr. Stone has attempted to do wasn't enough to get Beach off the Needs Improvement List, but it is not because she didn't give it her all, but I don't think the superintendent has any alternative but to do what he has to do.

Well, yes, he did have other alternatives, but then

The state has offered to clear Beach High School's academic record and provide up to $6 million to bolster their fresh start. But they'll have to purge Beach High's 200 teachers, staff and administrators to seal the deal. Only 49 percent of them, excluding the principal, can be rehired.

And really, who in their right mind would say no to $6 million, if all you have to do is let a couple of hundred experienced teachers go. After all that score raising, they’re probably burnt out anyway. They could be replaced with inexpensive fresh faces from TFA that could attract some private grant money and a lot of positive press as well.

Some people may wonder what happens during the last few months of the year in a school where everyone got a pink slip as a reward for not jumping ship long ago. Well, this is what the principal who just didn’t try hard enough had to say,

I came here for a season to do the work we needed to do, and that's what we've done. I'm encouraging everyone to stay focused because we're here to do what's best for the kids and wherever we are we will continue to do our best.

I was curious about what kind of a school fails so badly that it requires a purging of every staff member. There’s not a lot of information out there, but I did find this

In 1867, the Beach Institute was established by the Freedmen's Bureau with funds donated by Alfred Ely Beach, editor of Scientific American. The school was initially privately funded as a manual training school to provide a means for newly freed African Americans to assimilate into white society. By 1874, the institute was appropriated by the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education for the purpose of providing free education to Savannah's African American citizenry. Although the Beach Institute closed its doors in 1915, it was reopened as an African American cultural center and is currently operated by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation. The Beach name survives in the name of Alfred E. Beach High School.

A.E. Beach High School’s home page tells us

The Beach Institute was opened to educate the newly freed slaves in 1867. Over the years, Alfred Ely Beach has become an "icon" of the Savannah-Chatham County community. Some of her most notable alumni have gone to become President of Savannah State College, Georgia State Senator, Mayor of Savannah, and Dean of a major university in New England.

I wonder what A. E. Beach, who had the audacity of hope to offer education to freed slaves would think about this final bit of irony:

A little over a year ago, the school took part in another historic moment. The A. E. Beach High School Choir sang at the inauguration of the first African American to be elected as President of the United States of America. I hope part of the $6 million payout can be used to get the kids a great new music teacher. I’m sure they’ll understand that the old one just had to go.

Mr. President, are you listening?

Can you hear the people sing?

Do you get it?
Because right now a lot of teachers who have invested their lives in the lives of children don’t get you. They saw you stand up on TV and encourage mass firings.
Please help the foot soldiers of public education to understand how firing the people on the front lines will fix the most troubled schools in the most troubled neighborhoods in our country.

Picture: A. E. Beach High School

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.