When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal came to Augusta earlier this year to celebrate the future development of the $50 million Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center on Reynolds Street, he was all smiles.
That is, until he began to discuss the current state of the Richmond County School System.
That’s when the gloves came off.
“They have too many chronically failing schools,” Deal bluntly said about Richmond County during the public ceremony in February. “And in order to have the pipeline for workers and students who will be able to take advantage of this (cyber facility), if you want those to be local students, they have to have an underlying good education.”
There is no doubt that the stigma of having about 20 public schools labeled as “chronically failing” has hurt Richmond County.
Over the past decade, many new residents moving into the area with school-age children have flooded into surrounding counties rather than gambling on their child’s future in Richmond County schools.
The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement is quick to point out that Richmond County received an “F” grade in 2016 based on its schools’ scores on the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), which is calculated by the Georgia Department of Education.
Richmond County School District’s performance was worse than 96 percent of the state’s other school districts in 2016, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
By eighth grade, about 57.6 percent of Richmond County students are reading at or above grade level.
Once students graduate from Richmond County schools, only 45.6 percent of the graduates are “college ready,” according to the governor’s office.
However, when it comes to Augusta’s neighbors in Columbia County, it is like a tale of two counties.
The Columbia County School System received an overall “B” grade in 2016, which is higher than 91 percent of all of the state’s other districts.
For third-graders in Columbia County, about 64.3 percent of the students are reading at or above the grade level target.
In eighth grade, approximately 83.2 percent of students are reading at or above the grade level.
And by the time seniors are walking across the stage to receive their diplomas in Columbia County, about 72.1 percent of graduates are college ready, according to the governor’s office.
New residents moving into area can’t ignore those statistics, the governor said.
“Because people do notice,” Deal said in February. “The military takes note of that. And I would point out to you that as we had our meeting with them several weeks ago, they pointed out that they have more of the children of those who are working in their facility that go to Columbia County to go to school than go to Richmond County.”
That is absolutely true, according to Col. Todd Turner, the garrison commander for Fort Gordon.
“Thirty-one percent of our military children attend schools in Richmond County,” Turner told the audience at the Augusta Education Summit on Aug. 24. “About 64 percent go to Columbia County and 5 percent go to North Augusta.”
“We have seen a trend over the last five years of about a 19 percent reduction of military children attending Richmond County schools. We have seen a 25 percent increase in military children attending schools in Columbia County.”
However, Turner said it is vital, now that Fort Gordon is being transformed into the Army Cyber Command Center, for soldiers to help mentor and support all of the local school systems to ensure a brighter future for the entire area.
“You look back to 1994, there was only 50 NSA (National Security Agency) personnel on Fort Gordon. Today, there’s 6,000,” Turner said. “Around 2012, the decision was made to move Army Cyber Headquarters from six separate installations in the National Capital Region to Fort Gordon with a date of about 2020.”
Turner said Fort Gordon has less than 36 months before that transformation is complete.
“The future is here,” Turner said. “It is at our door. We are already building those facilities.”
While Fort Gordon is growing at a tremendously rapid pace, Turner said the Army is also committed to helping the Augusta area thrive.
“Fort Gordon wants to attract and retain a world-class cyber workforce,” he said, adding that there are currently about 1,400 military children who attend schools in Richmond County.
Therefore, Fort Gordon has developed an Adopt-A-School Program where a battalion or brigade becomes the partner organization to a public high school district. That unit is also responsible for all of the feeder schools in the district, both public and private.
“Honestly, the first thing that I get asked by our folks moving to this area is, frankly, about the schools here,” Turner said. “That’s typically the number one concern for parents. They want quality education for their children.”
As a result, it is important for military personnel to help support the local school systems by tutoring, volunteering, coaching or mentoring to students, he said.
Only when soldiers are inside the schools do they begin to understand the challenges faced by the school districts, Turner said.
“You can say whatever you want if you are on the outside, but it is a different perspective when you get on inside,” he said. “So that’s where we want to be. We want to be inside the schools.”
And when Turner says he wants to support the area schools, he means all of the schools.
“We didn’t say we were going to the best schools,” Turner said. “We said we were going to every school because every school deserves to have some kind of mentorship.”
That’s the kind of commitment to schools and students that is needed from businesses and local organizations throughout community, said Dr. Angela Pringle, Richmond County Superintendent of Schools.
“When I first arrived, the narrative was the magnet schools were the performing schools in Richmond County and if you didn’t get into the magnet schools, God help you,” Pringle said. “That simply is not true.”
While magnet schools in Richmond County are performing extremely well, such as Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School which was ranked fifth in the state by U.S. News & World Report of the best high schools in 2017, Pringle pointed out that many of the other Richmond County schools are also excelling.
“Some of our highest performing schools are actually Blythe and McBean. Those are two of our highest performing, non-magnet schools,” Pringle said. “So the reality is, we have good work going on everywhere, including schools such as Warren Road Elementary. A lot of the schools are doing really well in the west end of the county and the south end of the county, but we have a challenge right at that Deans Bridge Road corridor. Right on down past Josey High School all the way up to the Jamestown area.”
Ever since Pringle was hired as superintendent in 2014, she has been studying the issues in those areas of the county.
“I think I have identified it over and over and over,” Pringle said. “There is the same curriculum. We pretty much use the same hiring process for teachers and staff and we use the same assessments. But the difference is when you really look at the children, the support that they need to reach and access that curriculum varies from school to school.”
Some of the students in the lower performing schools simply don’t have a strong support system at home, she said.
“The children at Jenkins-White, the children at Wilkinson Gardens, the children at Meadowbrook have a totally different set of support systems than the children at some of higher performing schools,” Pringle said. “It is just amazing to me.”
Currently, about 25 percent of the family households in Richmond County are living in poverty. That means many school children in Richmond County are facing serious issues such as hunger and poor health care, Pringle said.
“We knew that our children were hungry, so we really had to work to get all of our children at the breakfast table,” Pringle said, adding that Richmond County provides students with free breakfast and lunches each day. “But now we have them at the dinner table. That’s where we are, folks.”
“We have children, right now, that we feed dinner to every school day. Even in the summer. Because food is a problem for our children.”
The reality is serious and cannot be ignored, Pringle said.
“Oftentimes, students are coming home, we have about 300 homeless children, and they go home without food,” she said. “So we feed them dinner, and we will increase that program because it is really a federally funded program.”
Pringle said Richmond County schools are also focused on providing students with a quality education, but it is challenging at times.
“There were 7,000 children in summer school this summer. That is not funded,” Pringle said. “We had to really find the money for that. That keeps us from paying those teachers that we need to be high performing.”
The health of the students across the county is also a constant concern, she said.
“So many of our children come to school ill; their teeth are aching because they don’t have good health care,” Pringle said.
“All of these things are what we refer to as wraparound services that are not funded through the schools.”
Richmond County has several community groups and local organizations trying to help address some of these health issues facing children, but they are not working in a “consolidated or cohesive fashion,” Pringle said.
“They are all kind of working on their own,” she said. “It can still work, but the reality is they aren’t moving in the same direction.”
In order to properly educate and steer a child towards graduation, Pringle said support needs to start before a student even enters an elementary school.
“When children come to school in kindergarten and they arrive at school from high-poverty families, typically they are already behind,” she said. “Believe it or not, we have children who arrive at kindergarten, they barely know their names. And they certainly don’t have those early literacy skills that they need.”
In many cases, children from middle-income families who are struggling with schoolwork will get extra parental support or even tutorial services if needed, Pringle said.
“A child in poverty sits home,” she said. “By middle school, basically those children never, ever catch up. They never catch up.”
So, it has become the school system’s new mission to reach out to children even before kindergarten, Pringle said.
“Public school starts at kindergarten, but really you have to think about what happens from the time the child is born until they arrive at school,” she said, adding that for many years, Richmond County had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state. “We haven’t recovered from that. Those children are now in elementary school.”
While some Richmond County residents who don’t have any children might not care about the current state of the public school system, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson insisted that they should be concerned because schools can greatly impact the value of a housing market.
In fact, a school district with a poor reputation can drop the value of a home by about 22 percent, and it can hurt a home’s value more than the close proximity of a strip club, homeless shelter or a cemetery, she said.
“A bad school district can drop your home by almost a quarter of the value of that home,” Jackson said. “That’s quite an impact.”
Over the past 15 years, the perception that Richmond County has a poor school system and suffers from high crime has also negatively affected its population, she said.
“From 1980 to 1990, Richmond County had a population growth of about 8,000 people,” Jackson said. “From 1990 to 2000, it was about 10,000.”
But from 2000 to 2010, Richmond County had an increase in population of less than a 1,000 people. Then, from 2010 to 2015, Richmond County picked up about 3,000 people, she said.
By 2030, Jackson estimated that the population of Richmond County would be about 210,000 people.
In contrast, Columbia County’s population has exploded over the past several decades.
“From 1980 to 1990, Columbia County picked up about 26,000 residents,” Jackson said. “From 1990 to 2000, about 23,000 residents and from 2000 to 2010, about 34,000 residents.”
By 2030, Columbia County’s population is estimated to be at least 201,000 people, Jackson said.
“So we would have a difference of about 9,000 people,” she said. “That’s all.”
One major problem is, many local Realtors are encouraging those moving into the area to just look at homes in Columbia County because of the perception of high crime and poor schools in Richmond County, Jackson said.
“Unfortunately, with perception comes reality,” she said. “From the moment those new residents walk into the area, that’s what they are told and that impacts their decisions.”
In order to strengthen Richmond County schools, Pringle said the Board of Education is trying to help break the cycle of poverty by instilling the importance of a good work ethic.
“We have to be concerned about how we really engage them in the world of work,” she said of students. “How do we help a child who doesn’t see a parent working or who doesn’t see a family member working?”
One of the programs that has already enjoyed an extremely successful first full year is the RPM (Reaching Potential Through Manufacturing) program. It is a partnership between the Richmond County School System and Textron Specialized Vehicles (E-Z-GO) that is designed to provide students with classroom instruction, on-the-job training, life skills, mentoring and employment opportunities.
But more importantly, the RPM program helps students stay in school, graduate and go on to become successful, productive members of the workforce, Pringle said.
“When we started this program, Textron said, ‘We want your dropouts, we want your kids who could potentially drop out, we want your kids who have children and we want your kids in high poverty,’” Pringle said. “Textron didn’t come to us and say, ‘We want your A/B students. We want your students who are successful.’ They came to us and said, ‘We want your students who are really having challenges.’ And (Deputy Superintendent) Dr. Kenneth Bradshaw asked, ‘Now, are you sure? Are you really sure?’ And they said, ‘Yes. We are really sure.’”
The program is literally changing these students’ lives, Pringle said.
“The reality is these are important opportunities for children to experience the world of work,” she said. “Because when children are in poverty and they can’t see how to get out of poverty legally, they tend to find other ways to do things they shouldn’t, which causes Sheriff (Richard) Roundtree some problems. These children now understand, there is a connection between work, making money and education. So many of our children don’t see those connections. This program offers us an opportunity to make that connection.”