Brain Drain: The Southern Response to Ed and Business Atrophy

The challenge of brain drain has existed for years in areas around the nation.  The South is no different, although perhaps more exaggerated and slower to respond.  As I grew up in Social Circle, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of my small town and find a job, home, and surroundings that seemed to fit me more than from whence I came.  Many college-age kids and younger are the same.  This is not to say I do not deeply love Walton County (God’s country) and recognize the idyllic childhood I had there.  I grew up recognizing I was a square peg in a round hole, and I felt like an escape would provide the upward mobility I sought while not interfering with/ ruffling the feathers of those within the cultural climate I was reared.  The early recognition that I was a bit different forced me to reconcile that staying in my small town would mean a constant outsider feeling accompanied with a general uphill battle for any of my ideas and presence in certain circles.  So like a number of youth across the nation, I left and come back for family visits, events of friends who stayed behind and not much else.  I wait with baited breath for Walton County’s prosperity and commercial growth.  I sing its praises as often as I am able and I encourage as many to move there as possible, yet the struggle to be accepted as I am (more progressive, assertive, and business oriented) will always halt any dreams of returning.

But what if an entire generation chooses to leave their home towns?  What if few decide to come back?  What happens to the rural small towns they leave and how do those towns sustain themselves over time?  What happens when my generation reverses white flight and we all move back into urban areas?

You may have noticed it in your own town and among your own neighbors.  My generation has little patience for lack of amenities and we frankly do not comprehend how you work or live without reliable WiFi.  This isn’t unique to a certain area of the Southeast.  This is representative of a larger generational shift across the nation.  The opportunity to be something other than someone’s child has its own draw, and readily available choices of higher paying jobs is incredibly seductive.

In the last six months I have engaged in a leadership class called Georgia Forward.  Initially a nonprofit offshoot from Central Atlanta Progress, this organization partners with cities around Georgia to produce solutions to the local community’s challenges.  These challenges are identified by a steering committee of local officials (namely the local Chamber, from what I can tell), and are then posed in the form of questions to the group of fifty class members, a third of which are locals.

The area to which my class was partnered is Troup County.  Rich in textile history and manufacturing industry jobs, Troup County is an ideal location for Georgians to stake their claim and build their dreams.  Yet the cities of LaGrange, West Point, and Hogansville are finding it challenging to attract and retain young talent.  With little to no quality of place attributes (nightlife, retail establishments, civic organizations), I found myself both very familiar with and appallingly shocked as to why the residents could not recognize their own challenges.   The juxtaposition of those who enjoy the non-urban lifestyle that Troup County offers is in direct contrast to the preferences of those they wish to attract and retain.

This is not new, or foreign to me.  It is becoming so damn common across Georgia I often wish to beat my head against the wall in frustration.  I have seen this manifest in Macon, Augusta, Monroe, on recent visits to Americus, Albany, and certainly in my hometown of Social Circle.  There is a generational difference that contributes to the challenge, but also an ever-present racial one, and at its roots, economic.

I did not think of it as a generational problem across the nation until I recently finished the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.  The book was so incredibly gripping- painfully so at times.  The tome spoke such truth to the life I have known here where, albeit less violence and drugs as represented in Vance’s life, my own experience knows well the depth of family loyalty, the need for escaping one’s hometown, and the ties that forever bind us by the heartstrings to the challenges we try to leave behind. Continue reading “Brain Drain: The Southern Response to Ed and Business Atrophy”

Amendment One: Fail

I am tickled pink that Amendment One got a big, fat, red F. It failed, failed, I say! I’m sad the others passed, but that’s not the point of this piece.
This amendment crossed party lines in its proponents and its opponents.

The proponents appeared a bit paternalistic in their approach: “We know what is best for the poor black and brown children in Georgia, and their schools, their teachers, and their community members are simply sitting around on their asses, doing nothing but eating bon bons on taxpayer time.” Dealio even had the gall to go into a majority minority community and tell those folks in East Point that his was that of the great white hope, and if the OSD became reality, kids could graduate from high school, and then they could go to technical schools. He didn’t mention university, mind you.

The opponents seemed to be a bit more anarchist in their approach to defeat the amendment: “Get the government out of my school. I don’t trust you folks to pick your noses without making them bleed, let alone to educate my kid.” I could be wrong, but that was the vibe I got…

My take is a little different: We have this nebulous CCRPI metric, which changes every year. Last year, Schools can get points for graduation rates, test scores, teacher and parent surveys (Nice! Poke a mama bear, and that survey goes down the crapper). Fulton County has advisers set up to help the schools earn more points based on the ever changing scale. Advisers! It’s all a number game, folks. And it seems that the scale is changing so that more schools are failing…struggling…sorry Richard Woods (nice change in rhetoric after the fact, though).  So more schools got on the watch list as this amendment became more viable to the Opportunity School District. In fact, the amount of schools who were determined failing skyrocketed in 2016. One Hundred and forty two schools were added to the list of 2015’s 81. Almost a 200% increase in failing schools. DANG! Coincidence? Maybe. Probably not, though.

It was a grab for money and for power, and it failed, as it should have. I think the voters got this one right (I voted Libertarian, so I am exempt from any blame for TP in the WH).

Young Harold Hills in Education

Think men....thinkI’ve been in the education biz for 23 years.  Now that I have officially called myself out for being really old, I have a point to make.  What is UP with districts hiring educational experts who have little to no classroom experience?  We got a bunch of Harold Hills coming into school districts with really nothing more than pretty talk, big ideas, and “The Think System”.

Doctors put in a bajillion hours of field experience, and lawyers work like dogs and tote partners’ brief cases for three to five years before they get a good case.  Business men and CEOs, accountants and others really do pay their dues before they are afforded the corner office with a window.  Even the McDonalds worker has to run the cash register and empty trash before s/he goes into middle management.

Somehow, though, someone decided that school and district leaders don’t really need that.  Someone decided that theory was enough; that The Think System is really going to work in closing the achievement gap.  That’s all it is, too: theory not steeped in practice because no one sticks around long enough to actually make the plan or the practice work. But that is the trend.  Spend, oh, I don’t know, three years in the classroom, and you are qualified to run a school.  And after you run that school for, oh I don’t know, three years, you are then qualified to run a school district, and not even a small one.

Fulton County Schools is doing just that, hiring a superintendent from Oregon with three years classroom experience…in one school and at one grade level.  This guy, Dr. Jeff Rose, is taking the helm at the second largest school district in the state of Georgia with three years classroom experience.  And he’s been hired to close the achievement gap with those three years of experience…in one school and at one grade level. I wonder what Alvin Wilbanks, the patriarch of Georgia Superintendents, thinks about this.

I haven’t asked Dr. Wilbanks, but I’m wary.  No, I’m reticent.  When I was coming up, the principal’s job was something that was awarded teachers who did their time, were excellent in content and pedagogy, and who were steeped in the community.  That’s where the best teachers, who did their time, went to die.  They had the experience in the classroom to understand that teaching is hard, and kids are different.  They had the experience in the schools to know that some parents are just more difficult than others, and the experience to know that some teachers can be straightened out with a stern conference, not a letter of direction.  They knew that central office was only for those who retired and were wooed back from retirement into the fold.  They had the experience to see education for what it is, warts and all.

Nowadays, counties are hiring these young pups who have little to no classroom experience and the same degree pedigree that I have, except my degrees came from real live universities (they didn’t have online education back in the day…and the Broad Institute for Superintendents is sketchy…sketchy I say!).

How are these youngins going to know the ropes or deal with the real life things that happen in school?  How can anyone without boots on the ground, nights in trenches, late practices, rehearsals, mock trials, rivalry games, or open houses know what it’s like in education?  They don’t. They think they do.  They have the theory, the think system.  They come in, make grandiose promises, and then high tail it out of town for the next Professor Hill to come in with a new plan, some new system, with little experience, and with no plans to stick around.

And the achievement gap remains.  And the kids still suffer from grown folk Harold Hills and hubris.