Mitchell: Nurturing a Desire to Learn Is the First Challenge

Mitchell

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men have had their first meeting. Their challenge is to put the Jackson Public Schools back together again.

No small feat.

Credit Gov. Phil Bryant and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba – whose politics are polar – with breaking the mold.

For about 30 years, standard practice has been:

• The Mississippi Department of Education grades each public school and district in the state.
• Districts that fail whatever scale happens to be in vogue are given warnings of one sort or another.
• Those continuing to fail are liberated from local management by a state-selected repair squad.
• The squad fixes what’s broken and local control (a specious term) resumes.

Earlier this year, when JPS again failed almost all state standards for effectiveness and accountability, it fell to Bryant to make the expected takeover announcement. Instead, he took the matter under advisement, as it were, and decided to work with Lumumba to try a new way to break the cycle.

Under the “Better Together” initiative, Bryant, Lumumba and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Education Commission of the States and Mississippi Economic Council created a 15-member group — a very impressively credentialed group — to devise an action plan for the 27,000-student district.

The panel has no set timetable, but its report will likely come in less than a year. From comments after their first session, though, it’s clear all recommendations will center on “buy-in.”

Aha!

That’s what’s missing not only in many Mississippi public schools, but public schools nationwide.

Not money (at least not completely). Not more teachers or better teachers. Not new books or computers with the latest software. Not more tests. Not more hours or more days.

The Jackson Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, did not fall off the wall overnight. Statistics have been becoming more and more abysmal every year. It has been a long, slow slide.

All the while, superintendents, school board members (Jackson’s have been replaced), principals, teachers, the Legislature, a series of governors, the media, assorted do-gooders and highly compensated consultants, students and parents have been aware. Abundant remedial and miracle cures — most with catchy names — have been proposed, adopted and deployed. Per student spending has increased as well.

Yet the trend lines have been consistent. With the exception of a scattered great teachers and great parents and great students, nothing seemed to work.

So what can a 15-member panel do?

Impressively, they seemed to recognize right off that while there are many pieces, nothing can substitute for the core element — students with a desire to learn and parents interested in making that happen.

When you think about it, knowledge is more accessible to more people today than it has ever been in the history of humanity. Once, there were no books. Later, only wealthy families could afford education. In the nation’s early years, there was often no school nearby.

In our lifetimes, public schools pick students up in the morning, feed them breakfast and lunch and return them home. Today in almost all corners of the world everything there is to know about math, physics, literature, art, history — any topic — is available to billions of people. Googling “Mozart” returns 85.9 million internet matches in less than one second.
Knowledge is there to gobble up — but only for those who seek it, who want it and — ta da — who see education as having relevance to their lives.

To that end, some of the strategies of “Better Together” will center on developing learning communities. To that end, some of the recommendations will be to transform more school facilities from the current model resembling fenced-off prisons to 24/7 gathering places.
It’s kind of like going back to the Old West where town meetings were sometimes held in churches or courthouses, but more often in schoolhouses.

There’s no magic, but it makes sense that if people think of schools as the centers of their communities, there’s a decent chance that the joy of learning will become more important in their lives.

The governor, the mayor and the other entities have taken the bold step of trying to take race and politics out of the conversation. Detractors will keep trying to inject these considerations because, well, that’s all they’ve got.

Better schools lead to better communities and better communities lead to better schools. It’s a simplistic formula, but it’s the only way to put the Jackson Public Schools together again.


Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2014Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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