The last four city administrations have acknowledged the nexus between education and economic development and the necessity to impact school readiness positively. Currently, St. Pete’s director of education position is vacant, and the areas where the failing schools are located still need economic vitality.
BY GOLIATH J. DAVIS, III, Ph.D. | Contributor
ST. PETERSBURG — For years, my generation and others before me were constantly reminded of the three Rs of education: “Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.” And, while they are still very relevant, there is a fourth R that is just as crucial, if not more so, to our attempts to educate our scholars. The fourth R is “Readiness,” which is largely impacted by economics.
The literature is replete with studies and data on the achievement gap in America and cites poverty as a correlate. Schools, guided by the data, are accountable for educating our youth and, in some respects, are not given credit for the fact that many of the impediments to educating some of the most challenging scholars are beyond their control.
Mr. Vyrle Davis, former Pinellas County educator, administrator and co-founder of the Concerned Organizations for the Quality Education of Black Students (COQEB), candidly admitted during a COQEB board meeting that we must acknowledge an important fact: “We have some bad kids.” Mr. Davis did not mean something is intrinsically wrong with some of our scholars but that too many fail to behave appropriately in school.
During Mr. Davis’s teaching tenure, he relied on what he called the “board of education” to address poor behavior, and the board was not a body of elected officials in Largo. I experienced the board of education on several occasions and, like others, prayed my mother did not find out. Unlike today, parents endorsed a liberal application of the board of education, and I, like others, am better as a result.
In all the education articles I have written recently, several lines have been devoted to calling upon the community, parents and the local government to do more to assist schools and educators in preparing our scholars. Teachers, staff and instructional leaders are doing their best, and the call for community, parental and local government support is the natural extension of Mr. Davis’s philosophy.
This is not to suggest our parents and community members are negligent. Instead, when it comes to the fourth “R,” much more is needed, and it is incumbent upon all of us to look upstream for determinants of readiness. Economics broadly captures the causes, and our city government officials are largely elected to ensure an economically viable community.
Research by University of South Florida’s Professor Jamie McHale and others shows that brain development is essential to learning, and ages 0-3 are critical. Prenatal care, diet, nutrition and stimulating environments during this period are such that failure to provide a fetus and toddler with appropriate environments severely retards their ability to learn.
Additionally, environmental toxins, drug use and alcohol negatively impact the brain and may create behavioral disorders that affect a scholar’s ability to function in an academic environment. In essence, all this impacts readiness.
We know that if a scholar leaves the third grade unable to read, the probability of educational success is significantly diminished. Therefore, it is essential that we focus on building a solid educational foundation.
We also know that when scholars enter the school system with deficient brain and behavioral capacities due to the previously discussed issues, learning becomes difficult, and teaching is challenging. Scholars may not be ready to learn. That is not to say they can’t learn, but the job is complicated for teachers and instructional leaders.
Politicians and elected officials politicize education for political reasons and, by doing so, fail to sufficiently address the economic issues that contribute to the under-education of children from poverty and the overwhelming frustrations of those who choose education as a profession. It is easy to see how elected officials at the state level are politicizing education to perpetuate cultural wars and promote political agendas designed to win elections.
On the local level, the vast majority of Transformation Zone schools are located in the City of St. Petersburg, 15 out of 18, with all located in South Pinellas County, meaning south of Ulmerton Road. Transformation Zone schools were created after the Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Failure Factories” exposed how the school district was failing Black students.
This begs the question, what is the City of St. Petersburg government doing to impact education in its city? It has previously employed what some call an education czar despite critics complaining that education is not the mayor’s job.
The last four administrations have acknowledged the nexus between education and economic development and the necessity to impact the fourth “R” positively. Currently, the education czar’s position is vacant, and the areas where the failing schools are located still need economic vitality.
In an April 13 essay by Gray Group International, the authors posit a symbiotic bond between education and economic development. They maintain that a strong, competitive economy depends on a well-educated population. Additionally, education reduces poverty, enhances social mobility and improves human capital.
Given these realities, it is easy to refute critics who believe schools are not the business of mayors and elected city officials. Effective economic development and sustainable cities depend on strong primary and secondary educational institutions. Additionally, school readiness is highly correlated with economically stable households and communities.
There is no question that scholars from economically rich environments score higher on the readiness scale, thereby facilitating positive instructional encounters. Thus, when we closely examine the nexus between education, economic development and school readiness, the fourth “R,” it is apparent that employment, quality affordable housing, access to nutritional foods, cultural enrichment and public safety are essential.
Regrettably, many scholars attending our failing schools are deprived of these necessities. There have been many attempts to compensate by placing police officers in schools, utilizing mentors, job training programs, food banks, etc. I submit new and different approaches are required. Parents, community organizations and the city government must engage more intensely and deliberately.
I do not have the answers, but I believe our communities have sufficient brain power to brainstorm the problem collectively and generate viable recommendations. We are facing a new generation of parents, failed by the existing educational system and ill-equipped to deal with the demanding requirements of parenthood and an ever-changing employment world.
If we are to break the current cycle of unreadiness, we must rethink how we approach the current and emerging scholars. We must meet them where they are and develop ways to teach them within the context of their positive values, heroes, music, and dance. We must use their mediums to teach, revamp our colleges of education to accommodate new teaching methods, and, more importantly, ask them what’s effective.
We must teach history and make the connection between education and success. Scholars must be given the joy of learning, present themselves ready to learn and understand what my generation was constantly told and internalized: Education is the way up and out of poverty and despair.