Opinion Columns & Blogs

Fix the neighborhoods and you’ll fix the schools

This is the time of the year when our governor and legislative leadership turn their eyes to the vital issue of education, believing that our problems can be solved at the statehouse level.

I’m not sure. At least a partial explanation for Macon’s struggles over the past 50 years may be found on a recent editorial page, where a letter writer recounts his conversation with a member of our Macon-Bibb County Board of Commissioners. The writer explains that — and this is hard to believe — when the subject of public education came up, the commissioner proclaimed that this was a school board issue and walked away.

Could we be electing people who are unable to see the role that education plays in the economic and cultural health of a community? A sign at the Ocmulgee National Monument used to remind visitors that “All things are connected.” The types of businesses and industry that we attract, the level of crime, the amount of litter, almost every facet of our lives — even the types of stores and restaurants operating here — the state of all these things can be traced back to the quality of education available to all.

Both my work and weekly activities take me to the vicinity of several local schools, both public and private. For example, when I attend church on Saturday evening I pass near two schools as I drive down the nearby streets, and in doing so, pass houses where the glass has been broken out of the windows, the doors kicked in, the yards allowed to be overgrown with waist-high weeds and trash, litter, discarded mattresses and such line the street.

Come with me as I drive a few blocks further and encounter another cluster of schools, including my daughter’s. I wish I could say that the story here is different, but, no, if anything, it is worse. Let’s drive on, perhaps to the neighborhood of Mercer University, Beall’s Hill and the Historic District. Fabulous things are happening in this area, thanks to Mercer, the Historic Macon Foundation and other agencies, not to mention impassioned residents, and yet unkempt vacant lots and abandoned houses rich with code violations are abundant in every direction.

Long-time residents hang onto the neighborhoods they cherish, young families move into renovated homes and many areas are prospering in a manner wonderful to behold. In several cases, the school board has erected beautiful new facilities, yet nothing is done to counter the devastation just a stone’s throw away. Does anyone know what goes on in these houses where the glass is gone and rain pours in through the roof?

I don’t know if any of our leaders are looking for a place to consummate an illegal transaction, steal a kiss, or maybe get inside on a bad night, but I’ll be glad to show them some prime locations. While it’s not legal to put a liquor store or a brothel near a school, it’s apparently fine to allow these institutions to exist in de facto form.

We all know the vital role that parents play in education. Are our conscientious parents going to remain long in neglected neighborhoods if they can help it? Not likely. In spite of the best efforts of teachers, if the neighborhood declines, the neighborhood school also soon declines, and that in turn fuels the deterioration of the neighborhood.

The governor has been worried about failing schools recently. What he needs to worry about is the role that state-level policies play in hindering the well-being of long-established neighborhoods — not just in Macon but in all of Georgia.

The problems in our neighborhoods lead to problems with crime, employment and education. We don’t have failing schools: we have failing neighborhoods. Come with me, Mr. and Ms. Commissioner, and let’s walk around. We’ll see places that are crimes against the human spirit. The teachers who serve at the schools — public and private — in these oppressive places are heroes. We should stand when they enter a room.

The very least our commissioners can do is continue to work on solutions to our problem. I suggest a reading of John Donne’s “Meditation XVII.” You may remember it: it’s the one that begins “No man is an island.” I hope the commissioners will read it. I hope we’ll all read it.

Larry Fennelly is a arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be reached at LarryFennelly@avantguild.com