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Parent Takes on Poverty in Schools

August 4, 2008

By Ann Doss Helms, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Aug. 3–Hoping to move beyond divisive debate over student assignment, the Swann Fellowship is trying to launch a community discussion on how to teach kids in high-poverty schools.

Mickey Aberman, a lawyer and Swann board member with three kids in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has posted a paper with such provocative proposals as rallying businesses to offer $100,000 bonuses to teachers who make the biggest gains with impoverished children.

His premise: Yes, the high-poverty schools that have flourished since the end of court-ordered desegregation are bad for kids. But they are today’s reality, so let’s talk about how to make them work.

The group will hold an open discussion next week, and Aberman hopes it doesn’t just draw people who already agree about problems and solutions.

“I would hope that people who are on opposite sides of the issue are at the table,” he said Saturday.

As battles over how to draw school boundaries fade into the background, school board members of various political and philosophical views are also calling for more dramatic efforts to teach children of poverty.

The Swann Fellowship, created in 1997, and named for the family that sued to desegregate CMS in the 1960s, is best known for its advocacy of racial and economic diversity.

Aberman says he was drawn to Swann by the analysis of public education presented in Educate, an electronic newsletter published from 2000 to 2005. As fundraising dried up and the group could no longer pay executive director Steve Johnston to produce the newsletter, Aberman and other board members searched for new ways to make a difference.

Aberman says his paper seeks common ground for conservatives, liberals and others. But he acknowledges he may raise hackles on all sides.

He calls for spending a lot more tax money on CMS — he doesn’t specify how much — but says it’s more expensive to let youth keep failing.

“Moral issues aside, fiscally conservative citizens shortchange themselves by not ponying up to rescue low-performing, high-poverty schools,” he writes. “Most of the impoverished students leave school between ages 15 and 18 without the basic academic preparation and impulse control skills needed to obtain and hold a productive job (much less obtain higher education).

“If [their] activity cannot be productive,” he continues, “there is a high probability it will be criminal or otherwise burdensome. There is a direct relationship between criminal home invasions and CMS failures.”

He urges school leaders to come up with a vision to convince taxpayers more money will make a difference, and says that has to start in the early grades.”

The Swann Fellowship calls this the first in a series of “Issues in Education” reports and discussions. “Papers in the series may or may not represent the views of the Fellowship,” the group notes.

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