by Alex Saitta
July 1, 2007
Question: Alex, what is the latest with the school board?
Alex: As I see it, there are four major challenges the school board and district leadership faces -- buildings, curriculum, student behavior and financial management.
Question: Let’s start with the building issue.
Alex: I opposed the excessiveness of the buildings plan, the way the board took the money (taking away the people’s right to vote on all the borrowing) and the lack of public notice that was given when the plan was approved. There were better alternatives the public would have preferred. The public rejected a $197 million referendum, they wanted something less -- not a plan nearly twice the size. Given our job is to serve the students and AND satisfy the public at the same time, I'd say the school board got an “F” on this one. _
Looking ahead, we need to make sure the money is spent fairly around the county. Also, we must make sure the money is spent wisely, and this huge financial investment is transformed into educational gains. Concerning the future location of Pickens High School, 19 properties have been submitted, and the district office's experts are sizing them all up.
Question: What kind of education gains?
Alex: I brought this up two years ago, when I first noticed it. Now it is clear. Student perfor mance isn‘t what it was before. Three years ago our district scored 15th out of 86 districts in the state on the PACT test. We fell to 17th two years ago, and to 19th last year. We are struggling in the middle schools where about 30% of our students are testing below grade level. Also, our on-time graduation rate has fallen from 81.7% to 78.6%. I’m not blaming any one, but it is what it is. We need to face it and turn it around.
Alex: The superintendent has a plan, and I’m optimistic about it. First, the district is making sure the lessons closely match the curriculum standards for that grade and the textbooks closely match the curriculum too. Second, we used to test students at the end of the year using the PACT. By the time we received the results, the year had ended. This year we gave the students three short assessment tests during the year. Now we can identify the weak points before the year ends, and do something about it. This should improve student learning and hence, test scores, and it is costing very little to do this.
Question: What else?
Alex: There are three things a teacher does: One is things that improve a child’s education, like teaching their students math. Two, things that teachers are required to do, but do not educate a child, like traffic duty. Three, things that do not educate a child, and are not required to do, but teachers are asked to do by the education bureaucracy. We must eliminate as much of that as we can, so teachers will have more time to prepare for their lessons. Unfortunately, I'm the only one talking about that.
Question: The third challenge is the changing behavior of our youth, right?
Alex: Yes. Today children have a lot of unsupervised time, in particular, teenagers. If they were spending that time watching re-runs of “Father Knows Best”, they’d be fine. Instead they are watching TV, movies, playing video games and listening to music that is showering them with harmful lessons like, party 24-7, talk with 4-letter words, dis-respect authority, violence is the way to solve your problems, have sex, and the gay life-style. The media glamorizes these things, so many children just repeat them, and when they do that in school, it is disruptive to them, the classroom and the school. This make teaching more difficult and less effective.
Question: What do you think the solution is?
Alex: Us parents need to get back to the basics in parenting, like building character, and teach ing appropriate behavior and winning values to our young teenagers. Schools can also help. I’d like to see courses in building character and appropriate behavior and a school culture that stresses winning values. For example, gambling for a living may work on some cable TV show, but we need to show it will lead to ruin in real life. I’ve also believe some of our schools should become First Amendment Schools, which stress civic principles and virtues vital to democracy and freedom (http://www.firstamendmentschools.org). I also like Tony Evans' idea where a church will adopt a school. We need to give some of these students mentors where they have none.
Question: What else?
Alex: Dropouts usually fall off the graduation path somewhere in middle school. We need to strengthen the link between our middle schools and the vocational school and then our techni cal colleges. The school district is going to build a new vocational school. Tri-County tech is looking for a branch in Pickens County. I’ve suggested a joint venture. The school district can use the new building during in the day, and Tri-County Tech can use it at night. When our stu dents graduate, they can walk across the hall and sign up to go to Tri-County Tech and move on to a high paying career after that.
Question: Didn't the school board just reorganize the alternative school program?
Alex: There was a task force, and some changes were made -- they put the four programs into one school, but I don't think that will solve the problem. The task force presented their report and recommendation to the board. I asked a few questions like, can you show the board data on how many students are one grade or two grades behind now, verses 5 years ago? How many referrals were there this year, verses 5 years ago? They had no answer, because they didn't look at any data. They could not demonstrate how bad the problem is, and if it is getting worse or not.
I also asked, did the committee investigate and identify the typical background or profile of the student who ends up in alternative school? Of course he has poor grades, but how many have behavioral problems and how many fall behind because of poor academic skills? What is their parent situation, background, etc? Again, they didn't investigate that. I concluded they really don't know their customer or the people they are setting out to serve. That doesn't mean they won't in the future, but they couldn't demonstrate that at the meeting.
Question: What else did you ask?
Alex: I said, basically, your recommendation puts the existing four alternative programs into one school. The committee is making a huge assumption, which it has provided no support for. I went on to say, the report provides no evidence these four programs actually work. If they aren’t working to lower dropout rates, reduce expulsions or raise test scores on their own, they aren’t going to do any better grouped into one school. For example, the STAR program accelerates a child through 8th and 9th grade. How are those children preforming now that they have left the program and are in the 10th grade? They didn't give me an answer. Actually, no, they gave answers to all my questions, but they talked around them, and didn't specifically answer them. _
Finally, I asked, how will you measure success in the new Alternative School? Many of your goals can not be measured, so how will you know if the school is successful or not? For exam ple, how can you prove you are reaching the stated goal of a student better “understands the rules of society?” I suggested they need some measurable goals, like lowering the drop-out rate, lower expulsions and suspensions and raising test scores.
Question: So what do you think?
Alex: When I got on the board, the district already had Rebound and the Extension School. The district asked for, and the board approved STAR and the Small Learning Communities. All these programs were requested by the school district and gains were promised in return. To date, I’ve seen no proof that they've delivered any gains for all the money we’ve spent.
I was disappointed in the results of the task force. The whole thing should have been sent back to committee and those questions should have been answered before the board approved any thing. My hope is the leaders of the new alternative school will figure this stuff out once they get started. My fear is it may be another typical solution -- take the system you have now, and just slap a new layer over it, and call it reform.
The bottom line is, the behavior of the students is getting worse. Talk to any teacher, and they'll tell you. I have asked at least 25 the following question, over the past ten or fifteen years, has the behavior of your students gotten better or worse? _Most all said worse. The ground is _shifting below the district on this issue. The district is slowly starting to react to it, so they deserve credit for that, but they need to do more.
Question: Financial management is the fourth challenge.
Alex: On this challenge, I have to say the school district is going backwards. Next year it will cost the taxpayer $9,200 per student. Private school cost only $3,000. Some of that is because public schools provide more services, but some is due to over-spending, mis-directed spending and waste.
For example, according to the 2006-07 School District fact sheet, the district hired 99 more _employees and only 1 was a teacher. In the 2007-08 budget, the district hired another 32 and only 6 were teachers. Why do the lawn maintenance in house, when you can contract it out for a 1/3 of the cost? Why give the Superintendent an $18,000 raise, when she was only half way through her contract.? Why is the district flying administrators and school board members around the country to look at high school designs? They aren't going to design the schools. How is making them knowledgeable of building design going to improve the design of our schools?
That money should have been spent inside the classroom where it is needed the most.
Question: Mis-directed spending, yes. What’s your conclusion?
Alex: If your child applies himself, and you are involved in your child’s education, your child will get a good education in our schools. My concern is, it is costing this county about a 1/3 more than it should. Only about 59 cents of every dollar is spent in the classroom. The education we provide would be better and the pressure on property tax rates would be lessened, if the school district better managed its budget and more of that money made it to the classroom.