Schools in impoverished areas face enormous challenges. Kids often come to school hungry, tired or troubled. Now, Georgia lawmakers are trying to address some of those issues through a new plan to turn those schools around.
A new bill would target schools on a list published yearly by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. One of the lowest-performing schools on this year’s list is DeKalb County’s Flat Shoal’s Elementary School, which is trying to meet the needs of its impoverished student population.
‘They Come With Baggage’
On a Friday morning, Tomanekka Irving’s kindergarten class at Flat Shoals is painting with slime. Irving is walking around, giving some to each student. The kids squeal with delight and complain that the mixture is “messy.”
“It’s supposed to be messy,” Irving tells them. “That’s what kindergarten is about.”
The kids are all engaged, excited and seemingly happy. It doesn’t seem like some of them are dealing with serious issues. But Tina Johnson, the school counselor, says they are.
“All of our kids come with some kind of baggage,” she says. “Our community as a whole has a lot of baggage. A lot of abuse is going on, parental disagreements, that kind of thing. They bring that with them.”
The population at Flat Shoals is poor. Every child in the school qualifies for the federal free lunch program. The school’s population is also transient. In other words, families move a lot.
“We’re expected to meet the same criteria as a more affluent area, and I just think it’s unfair,” third-grade teacher Ebony Cobb says. “Even though I expect my children to reach a certain level, and I have high expectations, we’re just not on the same playing field.
Cobb grew up poor like a lot of her students. She relates to what her kids are going through, and says many of them see school as a haven.
“As a child, when you come to school, you know the teachers are going to make your environment safe,” she says. “So I know that’s what the children look forward to. So even if they come in the door, and they’re upset, they know that somebody in this building is going to take the time out to figure out, ‘What is it?’”
Teaching The Transient
But when teachers have to spend time being parents and counselors, they have less time to teach. Flat Shoals’ third-graders scored far below average on state tests last year.
And teachers here struggle to help their highly-transient students. State data show more than half of the kids who start the school year at Flat Shoals will finish somewhere else. That can be a tough adjustment for some teachers, especially new ones.
“Coming in in the beginning, I was initially one of those teachers like, ‘Where is your pencil? Why didn’t your mama give you this?’” says David Aiken, who also teaches third grade. He remembers his first year of teaching, when he didn’t understand why kids came to school without supplies.
“In my background, my parents were the parents that sent the tissue and the pencils for the whole school year, the notebook paper,” he says. “We had everything.”
Aiken says college programs don’t prepare educators to handle problems a lot of poor kids bring to school. In the case of Flat Shoals, the school and district have stepped in. Every teacher goes through “trauma training” to learn how to best support their kids.
All DeKalb County schools faculty and staff have to go into the communities they serve and talk with families before the school year starts. Aiken remembers visiting those communities. He recalls one in particular.
“When we pulled up, I literally said out loud, ‘No one lives here,’” he says. “’This cannot possibly be where some of our students live.’ The grass was overgrown, some of the windows in the apartments were broken out, some were boarded up, the pool was green.”
But some of Aiken’s students did live there. Johnson says the experience helped some teachers better understand their students.
“It was fun, it was enriching, and it was very emotional for our teachers, but I think it benefited us this year in that now we are embracing our students,” she says.
Bridging The Gap
These educators want state lawmakers to embrace them too. Cobb wants people to understand what teachers in low-income schools deal with.
"We need everybody,” she says. “We need the governor. We need everybody to come in and spend some time in this building."
Republican Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, is behind Gov. Nathan Deal’s school turnaround plan. He says he has spent time in poor schools like Flat Shoals.
“If it’s going to work it’s going to require everyone working together,” Tanner says. “There’s such a mistrust between local schools and the state, and we’ve got to bridge that gap.”
Time is running out, though. With three weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers don’t have much time to build trust and show that they know best how to help struggling schools.