John Lampe, the Smithfield mayor, is right. Johnston Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom should not blame the poor for dismal test scores at Smithfield-Selma High School.
In fairness to Croom, that’s not exactly what he said in responding to Lampe’s call for the schools to steer more resources to SSS to raise test scores there. Instead, the superintendent blamed poverty, not poor children, for the failings of SSS, though that is perhaps a distinction without a difference.
This much is certain: Smithfield-Selma High School students perform poorly on state-mandated tests. This past year, less than 5 percent of SSS students were at or above grade level in math. Just 25 percent were proficient in biology, and only a third were at or above grade level in English.
Poverty is no doubt a factor – at SSS, nearly two-thirds of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. But the public schools have an obligation to educate all children, not just those from affluent families, and SSS is failing that obligation, as are many schools across North Carolina.
Evidence found in N.C. school report cards suggests it is possible to teach children from poor families. In Buncombe County, Erwin High School is much like SSS – about 1,200 students, two-thirds of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch. But this past year, students at Erwin High bested their SSS counterparts in English, math and biology, often by wide margins. In Kannapolis, A.L. Brown High School has more students than SSS. But while test scores usually fall as enrollment climbs, Brown High School students performed better than SSS in all three subjects tested last year.
Granted, none of the schools comparable to SSS set test scores on fire, though our search was more cursory than exhaustive. Our point is that it’s possible to take children from poor families and educate them better than SSS does.
How? The mayor and the citizens’ group that studied Smithfield-Selma’s failings want the school system to pour more resources into SSS, and by resources, we suppose they mean money. But according to Dr. Croom, the school system already pours an additional $5 million annually into Smithfield schools. (In addition to its high school, Smithfield has a middle school and two elementary schools, and a third elementary school, Wilson’s Mills, feeds into Smithfield Middle and then SSS.)
But that additional money isn’t making a difference, at least not enough of one. The mayor and citizens’ group are talking only about SSS, but the town’s elementary schools and middle school are failing students too, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Johnston County this past year despite the additional dollars.
It’s possible, we suppose, that even more money will make a difference, lifting test scores in all Smithfield schools. But it’s fair to ask how much special dollar treatment Smithfield schools should get. Put another way, how many Clayton tax dollars will go to Smithfield schools before Clayton taxpayers cry foul?
It’s also fair to ask whether money really matters. The citizens’ group says its study showed that academic performance rises as resources do. But it’s also true that Washington, D.C., schools are among the worst in the nation despite having one of the highest levels of per-pupil spending.
Dr. Croom did make a much-needed point when he called for greater community support of Smithfield schools. We have seen no studies that compare community support among Johnston and N.C. schools. But we recall the school board member who told us he found no takers when he challenged his fellow business owners to match his $10,000 pledge to Smithfield schools.
We write all of the above to say this: Smithfield schools are failing many of their students, but excuses, while valid, are unacceptable, and the solutions might require as much community support as they do money.
The good news is that the Smithfield community, led by its mayor, is challenging the tragic status quo on its schools. The question is whether school leaders are willing to acknowledge the shortcomings and whether community leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves to make Smithfield schools better.