In the PBS educational documentary 180 Days: Hartsville, co-directed by Jacquie Jones and Garland McLaurin, the directors traveled down to rural South Carolina to examine the issues and roadblocks surrounding the educational system in Hartsville.
In the small town, which boasts a population under 10,000, two elementary schools sit amongst a host of others around the worst in the country for education. As a state, South Carolina ranks 45th in the country, while Hartsville residents work labor-intensive jobs for little to no pay. Parents, whether single or otherwise, must put in daunting hours just to make it close to the poverty line in Hartsville.
Meanwhile, their children must travel almost an hour out of their way to make it to a school that’s outside of their zoning district. For families living in such conditions, the stress and strain is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure. Yet as our interview with Jacquie Jones highlights, that’s not the case with these individuals. From profiling an 11-year-old student named Rashon Parran to witnessing the day-to-day of West Hartsville Elementary School principal Tara King, 180 Days attempts to stem the dropout crisis with community-based solutions.
With Hartsville and its two schools fighting against the odds—and winning—people are witnessing how valuing the student can increase the achievement in education. Despite the low-income rates for families and the high margin of repeat teen pregnancies within the area, the city of Hartsville was able to increase the national graduation rate to 80 percent for the class of 2012, and an overall 92 percent graduation rate within city limits.
Jacquie Jones sat down with EBONY.com to talk about the second installment of the 180 Days project, how desegregation still impacted education in South Carolina, and what she hopes to see changed in the education realm by 2020.
EBONY: What was your objective with this second iteration of the 180 Days documentary?
Jacquie Jones: This is the second 180 Days that we’ve done, as you know. The first one we did was in 2013, and we looked at a high school in Washington, D.C. So when we first proposed the idea of looking at schools through a school year from Day 1 to Day 180, we really looked at how the needs of the most vulnerable students were being met. We took a look at the day-to-day experiences of the students, parents and teachers in South Carolina and how they were most impacted by the academic challenges. In this story, we’re taking a look at two particular schools and their respective communities.
We picked the two schools because one of them had went from C- report card rating to an A, so they had a big jump in test scores in one year. It placed them in the running for one of the most rapidly improving school of South Carolina. The other school was the lowest performing school in the district. So we looked at those two schools, which are on opposite ends of the educational spectrum, and explored the history of the problems both faced.
EBONY: Something that stood out in 180 Days was the startling statistic about desegregation in 1994. One normally doesn’t associate that term with events that happened in the early ’90s. Can you talk more about the significance of that statistic and how it impacted the educational system in South Carolina?
JJ: For us, to see someone as young as Tara King—who is the principal of West Hartsville Elementary in South Carolina—to have experienced something as desegregation in that time was shocking. I think that in terms of how the schools are zoned, you can see the imprint of the federal desegregation. For instance, where West Hartsville is at, even though there is a high rate of poverty in the area—close to 90 percent now—they’re right across the street from an affluent neighborhood. That neighborhood isn’t zoned for that school district because of the desegregation plan, by the way.
You also see it in the legacy of the buses that the kids have to ride when on their way to school. They’re traveling from all over different counties and spend hours upon buses. I associate that tactic very distinctly with segregation. In terms of the town, it is roughly 50 percent African-American and 50 percent White. There are some Latinos in the town, but not many, and past that there isn’t much diversity. The schools are very segregated in terms of race, and that’s based largely on where people live and the socio-economics of housing. You can still see all of the patterns in the film and in the community that have existed there for a long time. I think what makes the community unique is that they really face those issues head on and don’t pretend that segregation is not happening.
People don’t want to name poverty as the biggest problem that faces public schools, despite research that shows that poverty is one of the largest challenges to the well being of children across the country. It’s not about test scores. It’s not about competent teachers. It’s about whether children come prepared for school and whether or not the school supports them. I think this community, regardless of being in the Deep South, is actively attempting to change itself and support itself.
EBONY: What do you believe are some of the needs that students and parents must have in South Carolina that aren’t being addressed?
JJ: If you look at education statistics, if you take affluent students out of public school and make them a separate group, they perform better than any country in the world. It is only when you aggregate all the socio-economic students together that you get the dismal test scores that we hear about so often. I do think that test scores are important, and are indicative of something, but they’re only one indicator of the well being of kids. I think the job of a public school is to graduate a child that is ready for life, not just one that is able to pass a test.
In Hartsville, the teachers and schools do an exceptional job in making the children feel valued. They recognize them for who they are and don’t try to fit them into a certain idea of where they should be at. In a lot of ways, it isn’t rocket science. We all know what was important to us as kid, which boiled down to some teacher or some subject that made a difference in a child’s life. We’ve moved away from that in terms of our public debate about educating our children, in my opinion.
EBONY: In your opinion, how have the No Child Left Behind and Common Core programs continued to affect education today?
JJ: I’m not an educator, I just want to say that. But I am a parent who lives in these United States of America. The point of that sequence in the film is really that No Child Left Behind was well-intentioned. What President George W. Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy were trying to get across with that legislation was to say that poor children cannot be ignored. The only way to do that was to hold people accountable for achievement in all groups. I think that’s where the whole testing priority kicked into high gear.
[Former President Bill] Clinton had proposed that the state should be held accountable for achievement, but it was really No Child Left Behind that added the sub-groups such as African- Americans, English Language Learners, Special Needs to really hold public schools in the state accountable for the achievement of all children. Unfortunately, I believe it created an environment where the test became the end-all, be-all of the process, instead of just a check mark to see that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Over the last 14, 15 years, it seems that the administrations have just doubled-down on that notion. It has been taken further and further down the rabbit hole, and the tests have meant more and more. And in the process, we don’t have any information that shows how this way of performing has been successful. Young children are doing just as bad nowadays than how they were when President George W. Bush was in office. So it doesn’t seem to have work, and there’s a growing consensus that the testing has taken public schools in the wrong direction.
This is why you have such vocal opposition to standardized testing such as Common Core [and] Operation Opt-Out, because through all these administrations there has been little-to-none improvement. In particular, we’ve only seen the worsening of educational conditions for our most vulnerable kids.
EBONY: Another scene in 180 Days features teachers trying to corral parents to attend a PTA-like meeting to discuss how to help ingrain the community into the school’s program. Can you share your thoughts about why it seems parents are unavailable to participate in the education of their own children?
JJ: I believe that there is a combination of factors. We’ve heard that many students who were in similar settings as the young man we profiled, Rashon, were pitted against adversity from a young age. In fact, I had just heard the other night that Hartsville is ranked number six in South Carolina for high-rate, repeat teen pregnancies. You have a lot of people of a certain age who are locked into the workforce full-time, and they didn’t finish high school. To support their families, they are working more than one job and don’t have the flexibility to go to a PTA meeting at five o’clock at night.
The other factor is that a lot of the parents of these children have had negative school experiences. With that, they don’t view school as a welcoming, positive place and experience.
EBONY: Is it important that school districts compete against one another to improve education? Or do you believe they should focus solely on challenging the students to rise to the occasion?
JJ: I don’t think that it is an either/or thing, really. I believe it is important to create an environment, a culture where kids feel valued and where they value education. Personal relationships are a big part of that, as a connection between student and teacher helps to foster a healthy pact toward learning. I do believe that there is a special role for friendly competition too [laughs]. We all have had that experience of wanting to do better than our rivals. But it all boils down to being necessary ingredients to cultivating successful students.
EBONY: Just recently, President Obama announced a new program called TechHire, where interested parties are given on-the-job training to learn skills befitting of the 21st Century. Do you believe that such an initiative will be the future of education in America?
JJ: I’m not well versed about the initiative, but I do believe that giving kids opportunities to experience real careers while they’re young is amazing. In South Carolina, there are a lot of manufacturing jobs, and it is very 21st century. In Darlington County, most of the industry is new and they have a strong partnership with several manufacturers in the area. They have a state-of-the-art, technical high school for students to attend. One of the issues in a small town is that people don’t have access or exposure to the variety of careers that are in places such as Washington, D.C. and New York.
I believe that the more these kids can witness and experience, the better off they’ll be.
EBONY: With all these gadgets being used by our young minds today, what’s some advice that you can offer as a parent to others who have underperforming students?
JJ: The reality is that the technology we are seeing is not going anywhere. It is truly here to stay and will continue to be an integral part of our children—and their children’s—lives. It increasingly has become the de facto way for us to pay for things, how we experience our media, and even how we communicate. So trying to get the iPhone out of the hands of the kids is a lost cause. The thing to do is to use the technology to advance our children’s experiences and education.
By connecting them to opportunities, it allows them to develop skills that can be used for the 21st century workplace. As a parent, we must figure out the best way to create opportunities for our children to utilize technology without trying to control them.
In the same way that we as adults appreciate being able to do mobile banking or check the weather or even check on your flight through your phone, we know there is the same functionality for kids too. Even if it means just playing games, there are a host of things kids learn in the virtual game space. Being on a Google Hangout is much different than being in an in-person meeting. To learn those etiquette skills for the virtual workplace is important for kids to know now. You don’t want an 18-year-old who’s never experienced a virtual meeting out there in the world.
By that time, I believe colleges and universities will be conducting virtual entry exams, so it is imperative that they develop these successful habits at an early age.
EBONY: What are a few upgrades you wish to see in education by 2020?
JJ: I would hope that with the new reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act that the tremendous education and income gaps we’re experiencing would be taken seriously before 2020. Education is a mirror of our society, which I believe someone in the 180 Days documentary eloquently says. Our schools represent our society. So when some kids get all the benefits to succeed and some kids are locked into these cycles of poverty, I think that reflects poorly on all of us as a community. It is something that we all should be taking seriously as a challenge—not just the people who are impacted by it.
We’ve moved away from the idea that we are affected collectively as a group to the concept that individual success is most important. What is best for my individual child or children? appears to be the thought process nowadays. We should all reevaluate that mode of thinking because the only way as a country and as a society we’ll get back to the top of the global educational system is by educating all of the children. When you listen to the debates on the Hill or on cable news, it seems daunting and fraught with challenges. But when you’re inside the classrooms, listening to students and teachers, it all seems very simple—children have basic needs.
They need to feel valued, held to high standards, and that’s not a hard thing to do. It takes willingness to acknowledge what the problems are, so I hope that we can get to a place where we can call the issues what they are and work together to resolve them.
180 Days: Hartsville is produced by SCETV and the National Black Programming Consortium. The educational documentary originally aired on PBS on March 17; check your local listings or visit Black Public Media for more information.