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The Flow of Failure



Recently, Virginians who paid attention got an excellent lesson in cause and effect.

The source of instruction was Petersburg, a proud and historic city that too often serves as a model of dysfunction in a prospering state.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, a host of law enforcement types -- U. S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg and Attorney General Bob McDonnell, among them — swept into town to highlight the first 34 arrests in a crackdown on drug and gun crime dubbed Operation Impact.

By coincidence, 24 hours later Petersburg school officials found themselves on the carpet before the state Board of Education. Their task? To explain how, a year into a crackdown on Virginia's worst-performing public school system, failure remains rampant.

Struggling schools, scores of dropouts, dissipated lives, dozens of arrests, decades in prison. Hmmm …

Linking up those dots is not rocket science. Today's failing sixth-grader begets tomorrow's troubled teen begets a druggie or a hardened criminal down the road. We can wrestle with interrupting that flow at the front end or the back end. Either way, society pays.

Just about now some of you are flipping on your computers to tell me how the failures in Petersburg are the result of poor parenting and sheer laziness. No doubt, there's some truth in what you say.

But there's also truth in my arsenal, which says that Virginia sets up communities such as Petersburg to fail by isolating core cities from their more prosperous neighbors and by shrugging away the long-term injustice of marrying school funding to local property taxes.

Yes, the state adjusts for poverty when allocating its share of school resources, as does the federal government. And since the standardized testing movement began to expose disparities a few years back, there've been sporadic efforts to gin up teacher salaries or get tutoring money into the worst schools.

But a spate of attention has not erased the effects of decades in which teachers had only to cross a city boundary to reap higher pay, better equipment, smaller classes and fewer problems of all sorts.

Last year, state education officials — determined to finally do right by Petersburg's kids — drew up a memorandum of understanding under which local officials agreed to meet certain goals or risk losing control of their schools. This is tricky territory since Virginia's constitution grants most authority over local schools to the locals.

Nonetheless, with everyone focused on lifting Petersburg's children from the mire, the plan went forward.

Wednesday Oct.17's report summarized how the year went. In a nutshell, not well. There was plenty of activity, much of which could be the girder for advancement down the road. But the effort barely registered in year-end test results. Five of seven schools remain unaccredited.

Perhaps the most dispiriting report came from Peabody Middle School, where the English pass rate actually slipped from 46 percent to 45 percent. (That's right, more than half the students failed threshold-level SOL tests.) Math was slightly better. There, a whopping 51 percent made the grade.

Operation Impact, here we come.

This is Virginia, folks, the state recently dubbed the best place in the nation for a child to grow up.

Facing the board, an aggressive new Petersburg superintendent of schools outlined a host of efforts to improve: reshuffled principals, daily remediation, extra tutors, after-school programs, parent summits, teacher training, on and on. Will that work?

"The real issue is whether the speed with which they're making progress is sufficient," state Superintendent of Instruction Billy Cannaday said later. Children, he correctly observed, don't have the luxury of waiting for incremental reform.

For Cannaday and the state board, the critical unanswered question is "What now?" How long will Virginia tolerate this tragedy?

"We're not going to say when, we're not going to say where, but we'll be back," U.S. Attorney Rosenberg warned Petersburg's criminal element as he left town the other week.

So long as the schools stay as they are, that's a guarantee. S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot who is based in Richmond. E-mail her at margaret.edds@pilotonline.com. This article first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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