MAXWELL:  School scores are a lesson in education

6/30/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



The lead story’s headline on 1A of last Saturday’s St. Petersburg Times said it all: “Bush’s Liberty City Charter School scores a D.”

But did the headline, referring to the failing score the state Department of Education handed to the school that Gov. Jeb Bush co-founded in 1997 with T. Willard Fair, president of the Miami Urban League, say, in fact, that the state’s first charter school is a failure?

I do not think so. To the contrary, Liberty City Charter, offering kindergarten through fifth grade to 181 pupils, is a roaring success. I know because I have spent a lot of time there. The school’s only serious problem is that, less than a week after the governor signed into law the country’s first statewide voucher program, it flunked state exams. My hope is that Bush, a commercial real estate developer, will learn a sobering lesson in education from this embarrassing affair.

The “lesson” is the same one that his critics have tried to teach him: Children born into poverty and dysfunction need everything that their wealthier counterparts need _ but more. Black children in Miami’s Liberty City have learning problems that white children in wealthy Kendall do not have. Liberty City children tend to perform worse on standardized tests.

Consider some of the socioeconomic forces Liberty City Charter faces. More than 91 percent of the population is black, and 66 percent live in households headed by single women. The mean annual income is $17,836, less than half of Miami-Dade’s average of $37,903. Between 1980 and 1990, 49 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, compared to 18 percent elsewhere in Miami-Dade. About 58 percent of Liberty City residents drop out of high school, compared to the rest of the county’s 34 percent. Only 4 percent of residents complete four or more years of college.

What Fair told me two years ago is still valid: “To bring Liberty City children to levels of expectation and achievement of other children, we have to understand that the process of teaching (them) is different . . . not because the children are different, but because their experiences are different.”

To this end, Liberty City Charter combines social capital and academic performance. It is a place where each teacher is committed to the school’s mission, where parents sign a contract to volunteer 30 hours a year and attend workshops, where parents confer with teachers.

The more than 30 parents whom I interviewed praised the school, saying that, for the first time ever, their youngsters are safe. They also laud the school’s tough curriculum.

Beyond the reach of standardized testing, however, lies another asset: emphasis on character building and citizenship, as principal Wilson-Davis reported to me two years ago. When I returned to the school recently, I saw tangible results of this effort.

“Our kids came to us pushing, shoving, fighting, cussing and kicking, no respect for property and cleanliness,” Wilson-Davis said. “But because we are a character-based school, we talk about ethics, hard work, discipline, integrity and respect for adults and their peers. If you walk around this building, you don’t see disruption, crayon marks on the walls, desks written on and general destruction. That is an indicator of now much our children have progressed. We’ve also made them very conscious of their language.

“We’ve changed some attitudes and behavior, which is directly tied to performance. I want to produce people who want to make a difference, who would rather work than steal . . . who would rather go out in their communities and clean up. We’re talking about long-term investment in our own community. They will be our legacy _ building solid citizens who will make positive changes.”

Unfortunately, instead of sounding like the proud principal, Wilson-Davis recites the rhetoric of a loser. Why? Because she chose to lead a school in one of the nation’s poorest and toughest black communities.

When his critics point out to Bush that socioeconomic factors affect children’s learning, he should stop accusing them of elitism, of saying that poor children cannot learn. No, critics are not saying that poor children cannot learn. They are agreeing with Fair and Wilson-Davis who believe that all children can learn, but those born into poverty have special experiences that politicians should consider when devising school reform policies.

If Bush disagrees, he needs to study the demographics of the schools that took the recent tests and earnestly explain the findings _ why certain schools excelled and why others failed.