Oedel: A challenge

February 3, 2013 

If the Promise Neighborhood Center plan is a dud -- ridiculously expensive, a bureaucratic boondoggle, overly remote from the kids’ own schools -- what might work better to help the kids and parents of Unionville and Tindall Heights?

The inspiration for President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative was a solid charter school in Harlem headed by educational superstar Geoffrey Canada

True, our everyday public school teachers in Macon are often doing their heroic best to make something out of extremely problematic situations. Their students’ lack of promise isn’t primarily because of school, but usually because of parents who are clueless, absent or derelict.

Ironically, despite atrocious results, the public schools are still about the best things that many kids in Unionville and Tindall Heights have going for them. So how would a charter school change that? The key: such a school’s leadership would need to cultivate an unshakable understanding among everyone involved that the charter school is a privilege, not an entitlement.

From the child’s perspective, that means you’re opting into a desirable program. If you act up, you get swiftly warned, and if you keep it up, you’re out, back to the babysitters. With firm rather than uncertain administrative support, discipline becomes not a chronic game of cat and rat, but an infrequent if still-useful tool reminding all students to keep on track. Students should know from day one, and be reminded as needed, that charter school isn’t party time. It’s fun but serious business.

From the teacher’s perspective, that’s empowering. You get to control your classroom and your own teaching fate. You get to achieve your educational goals. You have supportive leadership ready to whisk in to address serious disruptions for everyone’s good.

But neither is charter school an entitlement for the teacher. Work effectively in the classroom or move on to other opportunities. The school’s leadership can hire and fire at will. Slackers beware. Pay can be high, but varies depending on performance, not just seniority.

We can’t just beam down Geoffrey Canada to start a Macon charter school, but we can ask our savviest local experts, those who really know something about our own situation, to evaluate whether one of the four schools in Unionville and Tindall Heights might successfully be transformed into a solid charter school.

I’m thinking of people like Bert Bivins, Henry Ficklin and Elaine Lucas joining some of the leading teachers and administrators now serving in Promise-area schools. Bivins, a county commissioner, served his working career as a Bibb teacher modeling quiet grace, thoughtfulness and integrity. Ficklin is a retired Bibb administrator and teacher, holder of a real doctorate from Mercer, and respected longtime city councilman.

Elaine Lucas is a force of nature, city councilwoman and operator of an effective program for high school drop-outs. Like her or not, you’ve got to respect that she’s capable of giving tough kids a kick in the pants toward paths that can change their lives.

Together with some of the most knowledgeable folks in the four schools, such a group would know the problems, know the people, know education in Bibb and know the broader community. They’ve seen it all, yet still care. They’d have credibility where it counts.

If anybody could get something done in such distressed segments of Macon, they could. And if they say it’s not worth pursuing a charter school after studying it carefully, I’ll accept that.

Many of them may have opposed the recent charter school amendment, but agreeing to study the situation going forward should not be seen as politically traitorous. First, the study group would not be following the newly ratified state-based route to starting an Atlanta-approved charter school, but would be working with and through our local system.

Second, the basic idea would be to consider trading an existing school for a charter school, so not really taking funds away from the system as a whole, just re-deploying money already on hand.

Everyone agrees that those four schools aren’t working. Let’s get the Bibb Board of Education to authorize exploration of a Promise-area charter school.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer Law School, and is a public school parent.

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