By BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Educators with the Bradley County Schools say they are already helping those at-risk, low-income family students which the school voucher bill to be voted on in the state House of Representatives on Monday claims to serve.
The bill has gained wide disdain from educators across the state who say the idea of giving vouchers to public school students in order to allow them to attend private schools would take away from the abilities of the public schools to make the improvements necessary to educate those students.
For those here in Bradley County, the argument is not about any professional benefits.
For them, it’s personal and comes from the heart.
“I want to talk about what we can do for our kids that are in those situations versus taking public money to take them out [of public schools],” said County Director of Schools Dr. Linda Cash.
Cash said having had the experiences of teaching and working in high-poverty schools and very affluent schools, it is her firm belief the leadership in the building makes a huge difference.
“The teachers in the building make a huge difference,” she said. “Are they qualified? Do they love those kids? And, do we not make excuses because of where they come from and hold high standards?”
Cash said she has seen three low-performing schools as described in the voucher bill make complete turnarounds after change in leadership and changes in teachers who “weren’t on board with us.”
“What we actually did was reach out to those families and opened up the doors of our schools a little longer, gave no excuses for poor performance and changed the environment.”
“Before I would back any voucher, I would want to know the answers to those questions,” Cash said. “What have we truly done to change the culture of that school so we give the kids the opportunities. It’s not that they cannot learn, because they are all very capable of learning — probably at faster rates than we ever thought they could. But, we have to provide that foundation where they can do that. That means when they walk in our doors, that’s the best place in the world to be and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to do that.”
The director said when thinking of Bradley County, the thoughts are not of poverty as a whole.
“Within our schools, we have true poverty where we have kids that wonder if they will have food when they get home,” Cash said. “We wonder who is feeding them over the weekend.”
The schools, in concert with civic organizations, send home backpacks to these special students to ensure they have some nutrition between the time they leave class on Friday and return on Monday.
“I just think we need to look at things a little differently before we say give them public money to send them to a private school because I think there is a groundswell underneath we are really not looking at,” Cash said. “I am really pro-public schools, pro-culture and the leader makes a difference and the teacher makes a difference and whether or not we are reaching out to those families.”
The Bradley County Schools currently have a student population of 10,099. Of that, 58 percent are ranked as eligible for free or reduced lunches.
“We recently had a field trip for students at Watervile,” she said. “The tickets were free for students in those categories. 92 percent qualified for the free tickets. That’s why I say it’s a cultural piece. Are you willing to get in and dig and not make excuses. I think we have done a fabulous job in Bradley County in recognizing and owning that every school is a little bit different, but we set high standards for every kid.
Cash said one of the best things the system does is making sure “every kid is valued and important by every teacher.”
“That’s what I believe makes a difference,” she said. “I will tell you I do not support vouchers because I do not believe that’s the answer for those serious problems. I think it’s a band-aid. There are no stopgaps in there to say what is the qualifications for the private schools that would receive them.”
She said if the voucher plan is used, the private schools must be held to the same standards and accountability of the public schools.
Dr. Kim Fisher, principal of Black Fox Elementary, said her faculty visits the homes of each student at the beginning of the school year.
“It works really well,” Fisher said.
She noted a definition of poverty is not having those resources that are valued in society.
“So, I started thinking what is valued in are kids’ society in elementary school,” Fisher said. “I found, hands down, it’s having a parent who loves them and is involved — brings cupcakes or coaches their team. The voucher legislation they have proposed undermines that for kids who are the truest and most impoverished of children. We see that when we visit the homes.”
“You can have a home that may not have a whole lot of money, but they have a mom and dad there who cares and is involved. I’ve been to those homes that are impoverished by most standards, but are good homes,” Fishers said.
“Poverty is the easiest obstacle for us to overcome. This legislation does not in any way address the most difficult things to overcome for children.”
She referred to her colleague, Corey Limburg, principal at Valley View Elementary.
Valley View has one of the highest rates of free and reduced lunch students with 81 percent meeting the qualifications.
“We spend a lot of time in our schools trying to help every child develop something that is valued by society — some skill — so when they go to middle school they can participate in something and show how great they are in certain areas. They can compete,” she said. “Everything in this legislation undermines the good work we’ve been doing in public schools. It breaks my heart. We have to take the time to explain that.”
Fisher said it bothers her when legislators say they are only hearing from educators on the issue.
“If we were discussing mumps and measles, I would hope you would have a table full of doctors,” she said. “We are talking about an educational issue and the first people you should consult are the best and brightest teachers. They say this is a mistake.”
Limburg agreed with Fisher saying the issue is not about job security for educators.
“This is not about what is best for teachers,” he said. “This is about valuing children as leaders and what they can be. That is what you would find if you spoke to every Bradley County educator and every public educator I have ever met.”
“We have to value the children as people first,” Limburg said. “We have to address the physical, emotional well-being with that child before we address any academic component.”
He said what can be found in the schools are teachers who will take on the challenge of “connecting with kids outside of the academic curriculum.”
“We challenge our teachers to know these students,” Limburg said. “We have specific professional development — dedicated hours and days — to sitting down and knowing which kids do we know the best, which kids have no mentor relationships.”
He said all of the county schools have some form of a mentoring program.
“We connect not only older kids with a pre-K through five school, we’re connecting our fifth grade students with our kindergarten and first-grade students to help them with simple things like what is the lunch program about. How do we get an ice cream? How do we take an AR test in the library?” Limburg said.
“You will also find teachers who day-in and day-out, above and beyond, hours and hours of time, pulling students to the side and talking to them about what to us might be a meaningless basketball game, but a game at the YMCA for some is the Super Bowl,” he said.
“When you take time to talk to a student about that, and you talk about the points he made against Black Fox last night, or you see those kids light up about hitting a home run in a little league baseball game, when you take time to get to know these kids — where they go to church, what they like to eat, what their brothers and sisters are doing at home, what their pets are — those are the connections in which you will find our teachers are all smart, all brilliant educators. But, being an educator is not the same as being a curriculum specialist. We are people who have invested our lives into developing children as leaders.”
He said the voucher bill undermines developing those children and “almost says public schools can’t handle the leadership development part of the curriculum.”
“If any legislator walked into my school, we could show them tangible examples of how every child is being developed as a leader no matter what their socio-economic status is.”
All three educators say the luxury of public schools is a community affair. Educators know the neighborhoods, the back streets, the parents, grandparents and siblings.
It gives them a closer and personal look and understanding of what their students might be having to overcome.
“You do know the communities,” Fisher said. “And, a problem can be a community at risk or a neighborhood at risk.”
She helped with an evaluation for a school in Memphis. One student told her the best way to help their school would be to have a reading club after school to help earn extra points.
“But, I’m scared to walk home after the guard leaves,” the student told her.
Fisher found the student lived four blocks from that inner-city school.
“He was afraid to walk four blocks. He wanted to stay after school, so it was a community issue and had nothing to do with the school,” she said. “They had great teachers and a wonderful principal. That principal said vouchers remove good teachers instead of investing in the communities with early learning initiatives.”
Cash added the differences in communities can be accomplished, “but you have to reach out to those families.”
“You have to have the outreach and provide the opportunities because those families never had the opportunity,” she said. “If we are going to break the cycle, then we have to do something different within our communities.”
Cash said there are good private schools, but added “there are more great public schools than good private schools.”
“I want to be sure we are looking at what the real root is,” she said. “You might get a few kids that come out of there, but you’re not attacking the whole problem. When you’re not doing that, you’re not changing communities and not changing society. I say find what the real issue is and put your funds into building a difference in those communities.
Limburg said the mission of the schools can be called a “community development program.”
“We don’t want to be seen as a stopgap. We want to be seen as a community builder,” he said “The way we do that and provide that foundation starts with us. It starts in our public schools. We have 100,000 taxpayers we are accountable to on a daily basis. We are educating our future taxpayers. We are educating our future mayor, and teachers and principals.”
“I don’t think the public understands quite yet how much of a community development we can be,” Limburg said.
Educators who see the troubled situations of their students find it does tax the emotions and stiffens their resolve in making sure they are provided for in all the ways necessary to have a successful academic career and life beyond.
When asked if seeing what they do makes them want to run into their offices and cry, both responded, “Every day.”
“We had a storm the other night when the power went off for more than two hours,” Limburg said. “I can go light the fireplace in our home if it gets cold. But, I laid there and thought about those kids who do not have that. I thought about it all night.”