Business Casual: What About The Children

So has anybody in Atlanta or DeKalb checked on the children lately? You know, those young people that public school districts and their board members and administrators exist to serve, educate and nurture? The ones who populate the classrooms and show up every morning ready – in some cases, eager – to learn?

How are they doing?

The reason I ask is that all the noise seems to be about issues, events and intrigue that distract from that educational mission.

As the school year got under way, DeKalb’s former superintendent, Dr. Crawford Lewis, and two former administrators were awaiting trial on racketeering, bribery and theft charges having to do with some cozy construction contracts.

A search was being conducted for a new superintendent.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, the accrediting agency, sent a letter to the DeKalb school system, inquiring about procurement policies and the like. The phrase “letter from SACS” is in itself a chilling reminder of the events leading up to Clayton County’s loss of accreditation two years ago.

In other DeKalb news, two principals were fired for using school funds to purchase books authored by school administrators.

In Atlanta, there was more fallout from the cheating scandal – involving educators, not students – on statewide tests administered in 2008 and 2009: who cheated, who didn’t; who cheated a little, who cheated a lot; who knew, who didn’t, who should have. This was compounded by the school board’s voting not to accept the report of the commission set up to investigate the cheating, then reversing itself two weeks later.

Reflecting his own – and others’ – dissatisfaction with the commission’s results, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed some heavyweight special investigators, Mike Bowers and Bob Wilson, with subpoena powers to look into the cheating in Atlanta and in Dougherty County.

For added excitement, questions surfaced about the validity of the data used to show a suspiciously sharp and widely ballyhooed improvement in the Atlanta system’s graduation rate, which soared from 43 percent in 2003 to 72 percent in 2005.

Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall, defensive throughout the controversies, finally acknowledged “the buck stops here” and promised further investigation into the cheating, even as she threw out the possibility that “dirty data” or database discrepancies may have influenced the way transfers and dropouts were counted or not counted.

At least one lawmaker, State Sen. Vincent Fort, was calling for Hall’s resignation.

There were also questions raised about the involvement of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in suggesting members of the commission that investigated the cheating. (We can certainly debate specifics and process, but why wouldn’t you want the business community to take an interest in public education? Anybody else remember the “bad old days” when school board meetings were less dignified than wrestling matches?)

Of course, in all the excitement, there were the requisite snipes at the media – particularly at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose reporting first brought the issue of widespread cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) to light. It’s the old “shoot the messenger” ploy, attempting to shift the blame to the reporters of wrongdoing rather than the perpetrators, as though the problem was not the questionable stuff that was going on but the fact that people were being made aware of it.

All the drama and distractions beg the question: Is anybody paying attention to the children and their needs? Do they have wise, compassionate and caring teachers to instruct and encourage them? Do those teachers have the support they need?

That really is the point, in case some of those in the troubled systems have been too preoccupied with turf guarding and self-preservation to remember.

Budget cuts have underscored the need for schools to do more with less. The pressure is on, and it’s likely we’ll see more scrutiny, more investigations. But the tough business of education demands that educators focus on the students they are employed to educate.

It actually is that simple.

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