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BCSS seems to be turning a corner

Source: Barrow Journal
By: Mike Buffington
March 16, 2012

Thereís some positive indication that the Barrow County School System may be turning a corner. For too many years, the system has been mired in mediocrity and nobody seemed to care very much. Many parents who did care simply walked away by having their children go to one of the many local private schools, or they chose to homeschool. Other parents didnít seem to give a rip.

And school system leaders didnít seem to take much notice, either. For too many years, system leaders would take mediocre and poor standardized testing results and do verbal somersaults to spin that negative as something positive. Iíve covered a lot of school systems over many years and I have never seen any system in such deep denial as the BCSS was a few years back.

Today, that seems to be changing for the better. System leaders donít appear to be blind now as to what has really been happening in the system. If the first step toward fixing a problem is to acknowledge it, then some BCSS leaders have taken that step.

Several specific things indicate change is happening in the BCSS.

First, the results of last fallís End of Course Tests were in general better than last yearís results. That was especially true at Apalachee High School where students performed much, much better in both Math 1 and Math 2 than they have in the past.

While better in math last fall, students at Winder Barrow High School continued to lag with failure rates of over 40 percent. Still, the system appears to now be taking its curriculum and instruction problems in math seriously ó for too long, system officials wanted to pretend that no problem existed, when in fact both high schools were doing a terrible job in math instruction.

The second area that seems to be improving is the recent 8th Grade writing results. While the details of that have not yet been compiled, officials indicate the numbers are much better than in the past.

A third area that also holds some promise for the system is its contemplation of mandating some kind of school uniforms. While some parents oppose the idea ó Suzie should be allowed to wear that tight skirt! ó uniforms in a school setting can have a huge impact on performance.

That may at first seem illogical. After all, how does what a student wears affect his or her academics?

But it does have an impact and the reason is culture. Every institution has its own culture. Thatís true for businesses, schools and communities. And that culture is the most powerful influence on how we live in the larger society.

Cultures impart values, both good and bad. We can see that in the world at-large where some cultures have what we consider distorted and messed-up values. But the same thing is true at the local level even down to individual school cultures. Some school and community cultures are better than others.

The use of school uniforms, over time, changes a schoolís culture. It flattens demographic differences while at the same time creating a sense of unity and commonality. School athletic teams all wear uniforms. Cheerleaders wear uniforms. Other school programs have common attire, such as FFA jackets. So why not have some common dress code for academics?

Of course, some students will gripe about it. So what? When they become adults and get into the real world, theyíll find itís no different here. If they become a lawyer, they will have the expectation of a certain kind of dress code. If they work in any kind of business, they will be required to dress in a way that is appropriate to that particular job and that jobís cultural expectations.

And changing culture in the BCSS is what needs to happen. The old BCSS culture accepted mediocrity. Expectations were low both within the system and from the community in general.

The adoption of a uniform dress code is a visual way to send a message that the culture is changing. It wonít by itself improve school achievement, but it will create a new dynamic in the system that is difficult to quantify, but that will exist. Iíve seen it happen.

At the political level, the question remains as to whether or not system leaders are bold enough to make these kinds of changes. Can the board of education and school administrators provide that kind of strong leadership, or will they be content to just tweak around the edges?

The BCSS has a lot of potential that it has not lived up to. It faces a tremendous set of problems ó financial, academic, cultural.

And yet, there are signs that things are changing for the better. The decisions the BOE and school leaders make over the next 12-18 months will be critical as to the long-term direction the system will take.

Success breeds success. Sometimes, bold action is needed to make that happen.