For a while there, things were looking good for education in this country — and even in Fort Worth.
At last we got a president (Barack Obama) who would put education at the top of his agenda and provide federal funds to support our schools, a secretary of education (Arne Duncan) who knows the direction of the future, a congressman (Michael Burgess) who fought to free up stimulus money for the Texas education system, a state senator (Wendy Davis) to champion the cause of our schoolchildren at her own political expense, and a schools superintendent (Melody Johnson) with the vision to make us one of the top districts in the nation. Even though we still had to contend with retrogressive forces in Texas who label such standards as “unfunded mandates,” for once in a lifetime most of the stars were aligned.
This year alone, volunteers from every segment of the community will compile 650,000 hours of service in bringing Dr. Johnson’s vision another step closer to reality and toward closing the achievement gap. After all, she had brought the Fort Worth school district from the Stone Age of Windows 95 into the digital age of online networking.
But Rome was not built in a day. It has taken years and a 10-year plan to recruit enough community help to lay the foundation of a support infrastructure, a $593.6 million bond package, and hundreds of thousands of hours brainstorming in planning sessions and field work, for one common cause: to give our children the best education possible, increase the rate of high school completion, decrease the drop-out rate, and prepare them for the next stages in life.
Realizing that not every student is destined for college, our community support team implemented professional and vocational development programs through which students could become certified and employable before graduation.
For students who started with no sense of direction, no motivation, and few resources, we provided supportive social services like family counseling, health services, tutoring, and community safe havens. In addition to investing funds, technology resources, and software, the Fort Worth business community provided individual financial incentives for academic achievement, rearranged work hours to accommodate student needs, added scholarships, and made personnel available for mentoring and tutoring.
One of the crowning achievements of the Johnson administration was our receiving America’s Promise Award as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People. Although there were naysayers who felt that Fort Worth was unworthy of such a prestigious award, what they failed to realize was the amount of collaboration it took to put the application together and then to actually win the honor.
The process required teamwork among all segments of the community — teachers, administrators, parents, city employees, and officials of local colleges, social service agencies, and the Fort Worth Police Department. Each segment had to provide extensive details of their individual effort, budgets, and the means by which they would collaborate with other team segments.
But the most important contribution in the entire 100-page application was the students’ descriptions of how they benefited from this support network.
We were well on our way to building that educational Rome here. But then the barbarians showed up at the gates, people who neither contributed to the building process nor appreciated the toil that others had put in.
While we were following the vision, subterfuge and sabotage arose in the ranks. Not every school worked as a team. Not every teacher was on the same page. Not everybody shared our goals. And not every problem could be fixed as quickly as was demanded by those board members who would micromanage every detail of administration.
Hence the minor was turned into the major, the petty into the grand, and those with no vision called for change. They were not satisfied with the idea that problems could be solved within the context of progress. Instead they afforded no respect for discretion, preferring loud and rancorous pomposities played out in the media.
Altogether it was simply too exhausting to maintain focus on those things most important for the children and the school system. So, on May 24, Dr. Melody Johnson resigned as superintendent. And with her goes the vision of closing the achievement gap and 650,000 volunteer hours up in smoke.
Eddie Griffin is a children’s rights advocate and blogger who has devoted much of the past two decades to volunteering in the Fort Worth public schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.