The parallel tragedy

Normally tranquil Jonesboro was rocked in the first minutes of Mother’s Day when gunfire erupted at a private party in a popular downtown venue. Two suspects are in custody, accused of killing one person and wounding six others when they fired into the crowd.

In smaller communities, violence like this hits close to home for just about everybody.

Local teachers know a lot of the kids involved in Sunday’s tragedy, as do local police. Countless local residents have been inside the location of the shooting, since it was a longtime restaurant setting before becoming a rent-out space for events and organizations.

A local church group had to cancel its weekly Sunday night services hosted there, but members still congregated outside to pray.

Young Monterio Barnes lost his life in the shooting, which forever changed the honor and recognition of the maternal holiday for his family into heartbreak and desolation.

“You don’t know which is worse, the shock of what happened or the ache of what never will.” The words of English author Simon von Booy resound with relevance and poignancy, although the magnitude of grief in such moments defies literacy or description.

As expected, the main suspect is no stranger to entanglements with law enforcement. Kalius Lane is only 20, but his brief stint as an adult is already peppered with a lifetime’s worth of police run-ins and arrests.

In addition to being out on bond for a kidnapping and armed robbery charge in Osceola, a local news outlet detailed no fewer than 12 incidents reported by the Jonesboro Police Department involving Lane from April 2015 to January 2017—including one in which Lane was allegedly seen in a local hospital with a gun in his back pocket.

In an unusual twist, Lane began posting about the shooting investigation on his Facebook page about 10 a.m. on Sunday.

He shared the press release about the crime from the Jonesboro Police Department and then posted, “This [expletive] sad [expletive] slandering my name frfr 100 Case beat.”

About fifteen minutes later, he added another post: “Feds wanna lace put me on murders tryna case,” which was followed by a middle-finger “bird” symbol, a police officer emoji and a palms-up shrug emoji.

An hour later, this: “The rest of my life just gone over some [expletive] Ian do. [Expletive] wanna cover up for the next [expletive] 100 Dirty world frfr,” followed with another bird.

Around noontime, a barrage of posts included this: “[Expletive] I’m shooting for and Ian get touched,” followed by laughing-to-tears emojis.

That indecipherable mess is a compounding, parallel tragedy.

It’s worth remembering that the state of Arkansas committed approximately $130,000 in resources to the suspected shooter’s education, including English classes every year.

That is not said in mockery. It’s posited in the spirit of pondering aloud the prudence of that investment in its current form as part of the far-flung public education system.

Maybe we should reconsider the one-size-fits-all approach funneled into schools, in terms of whether it truly serves kids coming from neglected, parentless, impoverished or other at-risk situations.

Rather than funding one large system, would that money be better invested in individual children at a younger age when home circumstances throw up early red flags?

It’s too late once a kid pulls a gun at a party.

But this shooting suspect was once an elementary student. Probably in class with 25 other kids. Possibly in a school with high free-lunch counts and low test scores.

Money spent that permits a child to slip through the cracks is more than mere waste. It paves the way for greater losses later on: damages caused by crime, court and incarceration costs, unrealized earnings and tax revenue. Not to mention the incalculable loss of individual potential, and what might have been.

We see this pattern over and over. It’s time we open up discussion on what has to change to alter it, with a willingness to slaughter some sacred cows if necessary.

Who’s to say that front-end loading the same $130,000 on private tutoring and mentoring through junior high wouldn’t produce better English? Maybe better behavior? Then as an alternative to traditional high school, provide an accelerated technical school path to a practical career. There might even be federal financial aid available for that. Or maybe lottery money.

Heaven knows we need resurgence in the skilled trades. Good plumbers, electricians, carpenters all stay busy.

The difference in cost to society between a kid launching a lifetime of productive work at 20 and a kid going to prison for life at 20 is literally in the millions.

We’re already spending significant money on every child’s education. It’s not too much to insist on equally significant results, or at least sufficient vigor to demand exploratory change when status quo inertia produces failure.

Uneducated kids who can’t communicate are tragedies unto themselves. Instead of being surprised when they beget further tragedies, shouldn’t we be trying more innovative things to prevent that first tragic deficiency?

Tomorrow’s violent criminals are in primary school today. Their paths can be changed. But not if nothing else changes first.


Innovation green light

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Trump administration’s education department will be quick to reward outside-the-box thinking. But it’s far from obvious to entrenched bureaucrats or legislators.

If Betsy DeVos is anything, she’s as anti-establishment as her boss (that’s why everyone in the education establishment opposed her). And yet, just like him, here she is.

And here we are:

In a prime position to seize an immense opportunity, if—admittedly an enormous “if”—our own state government leaders are adventuresome enough to live up to our old state nickname.

It’s been 13 years since the infamous Act 60 was pushed through our Legislature. It passed despite broad warning signs and red flags at the time from a state mirroring us in many ways (West Virginia), which was taking measure of its own consolidation failings 10 years after the fact.

In those ensuing years a lot has changed—politically, technologically, educationally.

Electorally we were among deep red states. Broadband penetration and all that it enables is reaching the most rural of areas. And nobody really disputes all the broken promises (lower costs, better test scores, etc.) of consolidation.

We took the “opportunity” motto off our license plates a long time ago, but it’s still spelled the same way.

If Education Secretary DeVos’ head could ever be turned by a powerful prospective pet project, it would be a well-planned blueprint for a statewide Rural Public School System. Not a patchwork approach that seeks to semi-urbanize schools out in the hinterlands. One that is specifically designed to maximize the unique characteristics of rural lifestyles with newly accessible modern learning technology.

Our population has been crying out for such a solution for decades. We’re nowhere near the most rural state, but still a decidedly rural one. Only 17 of our 75 counties are considered urban. Our economy is powered by agriculture.

But as recently as 2010, our state board of education bungled the chance to pioneer a distance-learning consolidation concept between Delight and Weiner. Both schools had high test scores, great graduation rates and tremendous community support, but also an enrollment figure below Act 60’s magically irrelevant number.

So naturally both had to be shut down.

Fortunately, many of the masterminds behind Act 60 have moved on from public service. The question is, has the failed mindset moved on as well?

Closed minds brought us nothing but closed schools, and barely moved any needles on student performance metrics. Open minds can launch us into the national limelight if we simply insist on innovative thinking for rural education from a totally rural perspective.

Samsung Electronics is repurposing 40-foot shipping containers into mobile classrooms for sub-Saharan countries to improve their education. Each serves up to 21 students, and is equipped with a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, multifunction printers, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and Wi-Fi cameras. A solar-panel roof generates nine hours of electricity a day, since many African communities have minimal power available, if any.

But our solution for remote rural communities continues to be rooted in 1960s-era busing of outlying students to expensive brick-and-mortar structures in larger population concentrations?

The enemy of innovation isn’t really backward thinking (which at least incorporates thought), it’s inertia. The need for better education ideas in rural communities isn’t new, but developments in broadband, smartphones and tablets, applications and programs, distance-learning, video-streaming and other connectivity and telecommunications products and services are.

Rural 12-year-olds today know more about technology than college grad students did a couple of generations ago.

In the not-too-distant past, the average kid in rural Arkansas had zero access to East or West Coast fashions, fads, shopping, trends, songs, menus or entertainment. All those divides, and more, have evaporated in the cyberspace revolution. The Coach bag that was once purchased exclusively on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive can now arrive in Nowhere, USA, in two days from Amazon.

Likewise with access to the latest schooling techniques, concepts, teachers, technology partnerships and information content. The finest lectures and speakers on anything are available on YouTube.

The reason to not use a television series like Legends and Lies: Patriots to help teach students about American independence isn’t because “we’ve never done it like that.” It’s because those kinds of tools and technology never existed before.

And now that they are now proliferating, we must push our thinking to expand even faster.

We have some wonderful organizations across the state already in place—the Rural Community Alliance comes to my mind first, but there are also others—to serve as effective, enabling collaborators on a rural initiative needed not only here in Arkansas, but in other states from Montana to Maine.

Task forces too often produce neither task nor force, but maybe that’s a start, providing it comprises fresh, non-establishment minds. Even the best-intentioned capital-city thinking is simply incapable of grass-roots inventiveness on rural education.

Four out of 10 Arkansans live rural lives. As suddenly and surprisingly as last Nov. 8, those rural communities represent possibly the best laboratories for profound shifts in teaching.

Rural education is a national challenge. It’s carpe diem time, and Arkansas ought to be a natural.

Teachers speak up

To keep the discussion going about my suggestion that a formal, front-line survey be conducted among teachers to identify and gauge gaps between education establishment theory and classroom realities, I’m sharing some of the emails I’ve received since last week’s column.

It’s worth noting that every reply was well thought-out and articulate (hey, they’re teachers!) and that none reeked of flippant “gripe session” boilerplate. Some contained very specific instances and insights. None proclaimed to have all the answers, but each was appreciative to offer opinions and shared my belief that, if pursued vigorously, a full-blown teacher survey would yield highly valuable data.

One overriding theme was that better collaboration–teachers and administrators working together–is not only a key concept for real change, but also a welcome approach.

I’m keeping responses anonymous, simply because this discussion is about ideas and not people.

One teacher wrote that she has taught in both a high-performing school and one that did not perform as well, and it simply didn’t make sense to think that any uniform education “reform” could possibly prove effective in such disparate situations. She suggested structuring education priorities on a school-by-school basis.

“Each child learns differently,” she said. “Each school has different challenges. Give individual schools autonomy to initiate reforms when needed.”

It’s easy to fall prey to the misguided notion that standardization translates into equality. A blanket, formulaic response to grossly dissimilar scenarios is unlikely to work, in education or anything else.

She mentioned that teachers face student disparity on a daily basis, “from health care to social issues to technology challenges to character development.” One-size-fits-all solutions wind up fitting none.

“Every family and household has individual rules,” she said. Empowering teachers and allowing individual schools the leeway to meet their specific challenges makes way more sense than applying statewide mandates.

It’s arguable, as well, that administrative overload harms underperforming schools more than others. The policy of paying teachers more to work in distressed schools is already in place. How about reducing the paperwork requirements for teachers in those schools, too? That’d be more time to spend on teaching, not pencil-pushing.

Another teacher wrote about bearing witness to the rise of what he termed the Education Industrial Complex. His observation after 10 years in the classroom was that the focus of the education establishment has become managing teachers instead of actually teaching children.

He questioned the large sums of money routinely spent on consulting firms, education gurus and the “next greatest thing” that survives only a few short years till the next great thing comes along, with identical fanfare.

The warning President Dwight Eisenhower issued 54 years ago about another more famous industrial complex sounds uncomfortably applicable to today’s modern education.

To paraphrase Ike, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence over schools by the apparatus of its industry. He worried about persisting potential for “misplaced power” and the dangers it could present to our democratic processes. Only an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” can compel the proper meshing, Eisenhower believed, for security and liberty to prosper together.

Here, for too long the education bureaucracy has prospered but its primary deliverable–student learning–has not. That’s no surprise to this “teacher in the trenches,” as he signed his letter. “Our professional development time is spent on how to help administrators evaluate us rather than content or teaching skills,” he wrote.

As an example he described a day-long back-to-school seminar on Bloomboard, an online administrative tool. No time was spent on how to use the new state gradebook program where teachers record grades, take attendance, etc.

“What is relevant in the classroom and to our kids comes second,” he wrote, “to what we need to produce for administration to check a box downtown so downtown can check a box in Little Rock.”

The proliferation of superfluous paperwork was the main topic of another email from a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience.

“More time and focus is spent on completing forms, which can be made to say anything,” he wrote, “and yet they actually have no bearing whatsoever on what happens in the classroom.” He suggested that some classroom experience–five years was his idea–be required before anyone is allowed to become an administrator.

It seems, indeed, a slippery slope for administrators without classroom experience to have a top-down view of education and thus drown, perhaps unwittingly, teachers in a deluge of paperwork requirements.

This former teacher also stressed that moving out from the classroom itself, those involved in the education system become less connected with genuine improvement in student learning.

“Curricula developers,” he noted, “have a product to sell, the same as tennis shoes and cell phones.”

Suppliers like that are peddlers, he said, who simply wish to market their product. Notions regarding quality and education improvement take a back seat to selling.

He also shared a friend’s idea to prompt more parental involvement.

“Before a parent takes the child tax credit on their taxes,” he wrote, “they should be required to show proof of attending all parent/teacher conferences throughout the year.”

Keep the ideas coming!