MARION | In this area of the state’s Black Belt region where dirt roads, farmland and dilapidated buildings are a common sight, and poverty and unemployment are high, a school system — Perry County Schools — has managed to do the opposite of the trend that the area’s demographics would suggest: provide top-tier education.
According to the U.S. Census, more than 30 percent of Perry County’s 10,591 residents live below the poverty line and more than 20 percent are unemployed.
In the Perry County School System, all of the system’s 1,800 students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, and 99.9 percent of the students are black.
In general, such demographics — black students and those on free and reduced lunch programs — perform worse academically than any other groups except students in special education. Schools across the nation that have large numbers of students in those groups generally fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress, minimum state academic standards.
Yet for four straight years, all of Perry County’s four public schools — two elementary and two high schools — have met continuously rising AYP standards when no other school system in West Alabama has been able to do so.
That's right, instead of whining about parental involvement (or the lack there of), balancing the budget on the backs of students, lynching public education, laying off teachers and support personnel, closing schools, and keeping students from hearing President Obama's annual Back to School speech,and other sad, sorry, excuses they get the job done.
Perry County Schools also boast a 97 percent system-wide graduation rate with a higher than 75 percent college placement rate. Its schools were given the Healthy Schools Program National Recognition Silver Award for its healthy school lunch menus from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce the rate of childhood obesity by 2015, and the 2010 U.S. News & World Report on best high schools named Perry County’s Robert C. Hatch High School a “bronze school,” putting it among the top 6.3 percent of high schools in the nation.
What John Heard, superintendent of Perry County Schools said!
“I’d say we’re successful because we don’t make excuses,” said John Heard, superintendent of Perry County Schools. “Once you make excuses for not getting the job done, you don’t look for solutions. At that point, it’s someone else’s fault and you don’t try to even look for solutions.”
Now that is the kind of philosophy I wish the Huntsville City Schools had instead of the one they have.
Perhaps the reason that Dr. Robinson isn’t concerned about it taking two months to get a comparison between the FY 2011 and FY 2012 budgets is that she’s convinced that the system is meeting the requirements of the IEPs. In a brief conversation that I had with her after Thursday’s board meeting, she said that she knew that the system was meeting the requirements of the IEPs because the system isn’t being sued.
Let’s let that settle in for a moment.
Our board knows that our children are being educated because they’re not currently being sued for failing to do so. (I am aware of a number of lawsuit that are currently in process. The legal process takes time, as Dr. Robinson should know.)
It's the curriculum stupid!
Heard said Perry County’s students begin school already at a disadvantage economically and socially.
Students enroll in school knowing far less words than they should, typically 1,000 fewer words than their fellow students in more affluent school districts.
“It’s not that they don’t have the capability, it’s that they’re not exposed,” Heard said. “So we immediately attack this by exposing them to a language-rich environment.”
“We put them in a research-based structured reading program from kindergarten through third grade,” he said. “All students go through this program. It’s mandatory. We set aside a block of time each morning just to do this.”
It's about working together to break the vicious chains of poverty for future generations and beyond.
Heard said students know their ticket out of poverty is education. That’s something that every administrator, teacher and even maintenance personnel in the school system stresses to them on a regular basis.
“College is the only option these kids have because there’s nothing else here for them to do,” Heard said. “The only opportunity they have to be successful is to be educated.”
A major reason that so many students in Perry County graduate and go to college is the system’s dual enrollment program.
Heard said that Perry County Schools partner with every organization and business they possibly can, especially four-year and community colleges, which allow them opportunities to offer students a plethora of career exposure and training options.
Caring, certified, professional teachers, administrators and support personnel make the all the difference. This is what happens when the Superintendent works with teachers and support personnel instead of being at war with them.
Helping Perry County’s students succeed is a total team effort, said Marcia Smiley, Perry County Schools’ assistant superintendent.
Teachers are the driving forces behind the system’s success, but their success occurs at a high level because they’re heavily supported.
“Mr. Heard allows buy in from everyone,” Smiley said. “Everyone has support. We’ll bring the community in, the janitors, everyone.
“Everyone’s involved because when you have buy in from everyone you have everyone’s support.”
Heard said that Perry County’s elementary schools have good parent involvement through the PTAs, but parent support drops off at the high school level.
That doesn’t mean that education still doesn’t get accomplished, Heard said.
“Programs are just tools,” Heard said. “We have committed people who believe our kids can achieve. Once you have that, they’ll find a way to make things happen.”
The Perry County school system should be a model for the state and the nation because it is living proof that every child can learn with the right approach. It's not about the money, it's about the people who put students first for real.
Education is the HOPE of the republic.