Revitalization via education

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 20, 2014

What if the city recruited partners to establish a charter school to serve the West End neighborhood?
What if, instead of replacing Knox Middle School, the school system did away with it and expanded Overton and Isenberg elementaries to bring in grades 6-8?
What if children started going to school at the age of 6 months?
Those are some of the approaches offered at the Salisbury City Council retreat Wednesday by Carol Naughton of Atlanta. Senior vice president of Purpose Built Communities, Naughton helped lead the transformation of the East Lake area of Atlanta several years ago. It was an ambitious, multifacet undertaking, but the outcome boiled down to this: Crime plummeted, incomes rose and student achievement soared.
The people who helped bring about all that success did not do so by following conventional thinking. They set aside the status quo, analyzed the needs of the community and developed ways to help the residents of a blighted neighborhood become more successful.
Education was a pivotal part of the plan they came up with in Atlanta. And education must also be a major component of any plan to move Salisbury forward, as city leaders know all too well. Naughton pointed out that only 30 percent of the Salisbury’s third-graders are reading at grade level, and only 10 percent of low-income students pass end-of-course tests at Salisbury High — which she quickly sized up as two schools, one for high achievers and another for everyone else. People are skipping over Salisbury, she said, and moving to Mooresville because of its school system’s success.
Naughton seemed to be setting the stage for City Council to rethink education — at least in the West End neighborhood targeted for revitalization, if not the entire city. Salisbury schools are in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, but they face distinct challenges and may need distinct approaches. While City Council does not have the power to run the schools, members seemed energized Wednesday by Naughton’s ideas and East Lake’s success. The city would prefer to partner with the school system whenever possible. But the East Lake example proved education can be radically changed from outside the political structure if necessary.
Dr. Lynn Moody, Rowan-Salisbury’s new superintendent, will soon unveil a new vision and plan for the school system, and she may well address some of the issues troubling City Council. Incremental change is not enough. But Naughton also emphasized that a school by itself cannot turn a neighborhood around. In fact, she said, we do schools an injustice when we expect them to go it alone. She urged new thinking and collaboration. Her message could not come at a more critical time.