The perils of pass-fail in Jacksonville's high schools

January 1, 2013 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

As Duval County celebrates the giant leaps made by local high schools, there are some people who choose to look for the cloud within the silver lining. A quick visit to the Times-Union's online message boards reveals a kind of cynicism that exposes the challenges of reforming our schools. Critics are incredulous that Andrew Jackson, William M. Raines and Jean Ribault High schools could be anything but failures in teaching and learning.

They support their skepticism with the fact that those three high schools were on the verge of closing based on the very laws that were put in place to raise the standards.  In the interim, however, the state and the school system scrambled to find ways to prevent what surely would have resulted in a very public backlash.

This would not have been the first time that traditionally predominantly black public schools would have been sacrificed on the altar of the public good.  In the 1960s and 1970s, high schools such as Douglas Anderson, Eugene Butler and Matthew Gilbert were downgraded in ways that elected leaders would have never done to schools such as Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson.  For the black community, they lost generations of academic tradition and heritage on a level that was not experienced by the traditionally white institutions of learning.  

Today, when the urban core's high schools teetered on the edge of a cliff that threatened to leave yet another void in their neighborhoods, already littered with the empty shells of school houses that once taught their children over the years.  Remember Isaiah  Blocker Junior High School?  Rutledge Pearson taught there.  Visible from the expressway, it is a visible reminder of the blight that our education community left behind among a community in decline.
Where did those students go?  They had to go somewhere, and they did.  As Duval County implemented desegregation, many young black students paid a higher price as they were shipped across town to schools that were ostensibly better than their previous neighborhood schools.  For years, suburban schools had to adjust to new realities through a new culture shock that came with students who were dealing with a situation that was alien to all.  Was it any wonder that the children of Anderson, Butler and Gilbert graduates had a difficult transition from schools that taught their families, neighbors and friends to an environment where they truly were the new kids on the block?

Past is prologue to the problem that threatened our school system with yet more upheaval.  Simply stated, the state's message to our community was that a new generation of minority students was going to have to let go of their neighborhood public schools for the sake of moving the district forward.  This approach ignored Raines' and Ribault's nearly five-decade-old work and looked to social engineers to once again call the shots.  And one of the county's first public high schools was in the same dire circumstances.

The closure of Jackson, Raines and Ribault became more real with each passing round of FCAT scores.  In my opinion, this would have ended the streak of failing schools but would not have addressed the issue of the students who were also failing.

School choice did its part in giving many students the way out through either opportunity scholarships, charter schools or private schools.  These options, however, could not rescue every student who remained in their challenged neighborhood schools and the downward spiral continued.

And what did all the king's horses and all the king's men do to save the urban high schools?  They took drastic and draconian measures that amounted to declaring war on educators.  The bureaucrats emerged with clipboards in tow to count word walls and inspect bulletin boards.  The superficial was used to condemn and judge rather than assist and enrich.  The volumes of lesson plans that teachers wrote yielded the same results as if they were not written at all.

As long as the suburbs saw their own schools moving forward, it was not of consequence for them to ignore what many believed to be problems that only existed on the other side of the St. Johns River.  The wake up call came when closure of the inner city high schools would result in a large number of students who were not simply going to disappear like their former schools.  These students needed someplace to go, and it was likely going to shift the responsibility to surrounding high schools.  

At a time when elected officials have ignored the wishes of the voters when drafting their education reforms, they realized that the outcry of black and white communities would have been too great to justify maintaining the strict standards that led to the closure of challenged high schools.  They watered down the previously sacrosanct benchmarks and allowed school progress to be measured by different metrics.  This change resulted in better grades for schools and voters who were now reassured that their world would not be turned upside down.

When the worst that came from school grades was just shame and stigma, we were parochial in our beliefs about our neighborhood schools.  When the stakes were raised in accordance with the law, however, we went back to rigging a system that politicians promised would maintain its integrity.  If schools adjusting the system for the benefit of preventing their students from failing it is called social promotion.  What would we call what we did with our high schools?

Editorial by By John Louis Meeks, Jr.