By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
A grant proposal that would have partnered Madison County School District with Valdosta State University in focusing on low-income middle school students, encouraging them to “gear up” for success in high school and college, tapped into a source of frustration for several school board members over the perception that such grants seemed to award money for things like “activities” and “professional development,” rather than what they believe the school district needs most: more teachers in the classroom in the early grades, particularly Kindergarten through second, and more paraprofessionals to help them out.
“Kindergarten through the early grades – that’s where we’re weak,” said school board member Kenny Hall, the most vocal in his opposition and the one who asked that the proposal be pulled off the consent agenda for individual consideration. He was clear about his intention to not approve applying for the grant, saying that, “I’ve made that mistake before, and I won’t make that mistake again…these grants have people traveling all over for ‘activities.’ How much ‘professional development’ do we need?”
The GEAR UP grant, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a six-year grant program funded through the U.S. Department of Education that provides for academic and related support activities designed to help middle school students to take on more rigorous and advanced coursework, increase their graduation rates from high school, and prepare them for success in college. Some of the things listed in the proposed application included tutoring, mentoring, summer programs, college campus visits, professional development training and parent and family outreach programs. Mills wanted permission to apply for the competitive grant, saying that it wouldn’t cost the district any money, that the traveling would be minimal, consisting of a few student field trips to VSU, and that the activities would come to Madison, instead of school personnel having to travel. Board member Bart Alford asked about VSU personnel going into classrooms to make recommendations and expressed concern about “so many people in and out of the classroom telling teachers what to do.” Board member Karen Pickles asked how many activities the students would be expected to participate in.
“Whatever our experience has been with grants in the past, I’m not one to sit back and let money be wasted,” said School Superintendent Doug Brown. “All these grants are designed to enhance teaching and learning. Let us show you that we can handle grants very well.” Reminding everyone that the grant was very competitive and that there was less than a 50 percent chance the district would get it, he urged the board to approve the application.
Karen Pickles made the motion to do so, but the motion died for lack of a second.
Another grant that was not directly on the agenda, but came up in discussion because of three new positions the district might need to advertize, brought out several of the same themes. Brown praised the team that had written the proposal, which he called “outstanding,” saying that of the 11 SIG grants the state awarded, the Madison proposal had ranked number one.
“We will do the right thing and make sure these are correctly handled,” said Brown. “Ït is our moral obligation to do the best we can for our kids.”
“I’ve had a busload of ‘professional development,’” said Hall. “I guess colleges don’t know how to train teachers anymore.”
“Madison is an isolated area,” said Mills. “A lot of teachers don’t come from colleges of education.”
Hall expressed frustration that the district receives about a million dollars a year in grant money, yet, “we can’t even get a parapro (paraprofessional) out of it.”
“What our super (Brown) said is true,” he continued. “We can’t relive the past, but we can learn from it. I may be old-fashioned, but where we struggle is Kindergarten, first and second grade. We deal with a lot of kids who don’t have parents reading and learning with them.”
It was a gap that teachers in those grades had to fill. “Technology can’t replace a good teacher. I’m tired of seeing grants that don’t get it done where the rubber meets the road, and where the rubber meets the road is in the classroom.”
School board member VeEtta Hagan also expressed frustration that the younger grades weren’t getting the kind of “hands-on” learning they needed.
“I’ll accept this grant, but I’ll be watching,” said Hall, who then made the motion to approve advertizing for the three SIG positions required. Hagan seconded the motion, and the board voted unanimously to pass it.
Just before the meeting adjourned, Shirley Joseph, Assessment Coordinator for the school district, asked to address the board, with a plea that the members reconsider its position on the GEAR UP grant.
“Madison has always been on the fringe,” she said. “The opportunity offered for our students by this grant is something that our guidance counselors don’t have. I don’t see how we can in good conscience ignore this opportunity.”