OEDEL: Bibb’s graduation rate

August 18, 2013 

The graduation rate of Bibb County’s school system ranks near the bottom. Of those Bibb students showing up for ninth grade in 2008, only 52.3 percent graduated four years later in 2012. Just five school systems of 180 statewide had lower graduation rates in 2012, meaning that 97 percent of Georgia’s school systems surpassed Bibb’s graduation rate. Every public high school in Bibb except Hutchings Career Center was well below the state average of 67.8 percent, bottoming out with Bibb’s Southwest High, with only 39.1 percent graduating.

Georgia’s statewide average is low to begin with, making Bibb’s performance on this metric even more remarkable. In 2012, only Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico and South Carolina had lower rates. Forty-four states surpassed Georgia’s graduation rate in 2012. The national average is 78 percent.

In short, Bibb’s public school graduation rate ranks among the worst in Georgia, which is among the worst in the country. Bibb lies at the sorry fringe of the dropout bell curve.

Pressed in May 2013 by Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Ellen Reinhart to explain Bibb’s low graduation rate, Bibb’s Director of Assessment and Accountability, Joseph Noel, said, “We’re a very transient community. Often students move in and out of our district more often than other districts, I would think.”

In some oblique way, Noel’s lame excuse expresses something true, in that many of Bibb’s youth have little home stability. But the impermanence of home life for too many of Bibb’s youth is not because our young people are passing through town, as happens in some communities highly dependent on seasonal businesses or the military. To the extent Bibb’s youth are “transient,” they’re too often being shuttled from one failing household to another, most of those households being right here in Bibb.

The catastrophic nature of home life for too many of Bibb’s kids means that they come to school without the basic skills to get along in school settings. They lack elementary respect for authority, one another, themselves and the project of learning. As one anonymous teacher put it on a Macon.com comment board in 2011, “I taught in a Bibb County middle school for the last five years. I recently resigned due largely to administration and the lack of discipline in the classroom.

“I’m not talking about guns, drugs and fights, as those issues were rare or nonexistent. The biggest problem was the CONSTANT disruption in the classroom from children who have absolutely no social skills. They speak to teachers and to each other with blatant disrespect, they yell at each other across the room when they have something they want to say, they throw books and paper at one another, they take each other’s supplies indiscriminately.

“It was so frustrating to see the students who were trying to do right start to roll their eyes every time one of the disruptive children started up. If the teachers sent these children to the office, then THEY were disciplined for THEIR lack of ‘classroom management’ so teachers just stopped writing children up for their behavior, and the cycle continued. There are no viable consequences to be given -- parents won’t answer phone calls and come for conferences, and when they do, nothing changes. Holding detention punishes the teacher, and the children rarely stay for it anyway, with little to no consequence for failing to do so.”

In other words, though school administrators can be faulted for not providing ironclad support for our classroom teachers, the underlying problem is that many students come to school without having been taught the most basic skills for living in a civilized society.

Charles Richardson has recently implored Bibb’s parents to become more supportive of schoolteachers trying to help their children, and to provide positive structures at home. His advice is sensible, but the vast majority of the problematic parents aren’t reading Richardson’s column, or much of anything. They’re functionally illiterate, and their children will probably join them in illiteracy and poverty after dropping out.

In a later column, I’ll suggest a shift in focus that could make a difference.

Oedel teaches at Mercer Law School.

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