(Published in Effingham Now, a Savannah Morning News publication, November 17, 2010)
The headline read, "Police charge Hodge Elementary PTA president with theft." For a lot of people, a more shocking headline would have been "Study: Paula Deen uses boatloads of butter in cooking."
It is extremely unfair to those within the Savannah-Chatham County school system who are trying to do good things, but the fact is many folks simply go "ho, hum" to bad news involving Savannah-Chatham schools. They have been completely anesthetized by the sheer volume of those stories. It's also the reason many people, my family included, choose to live in Effingham County.
Almost four years ago, we were thrilled to find out we would be moving to Savannah. We had many favorite hangouts from previous visits - The Crab Shack on Tybee and any place where you could smoke a cigar (ah, the soon-to-be good old days now that the tobacco Gestapo won that battle). We would discover new favorites, like Leopold's Ice Cream, especially in fall when the aroma of pumpkin spice permeates the shop. But when it came time to find a home, our thoughts turned to where our daughter would go to school.
Private school was out of the question; my job title at the time was "radio monkey," with an equivalent pay rate. We had heard horror stories about Savannah's public schools from friends who lived here, but we figured every school system had some bad apples as well as some gems. Our research of test scores confirmed that. Unfortunately, the housing bubble was about to burst, and the only thing we could afford near one of Savannah's good schools was an outhouse.
Then, there was Effingham County, where homes were affordable and all the elementary schools - every single one - had excellent test scores. That settled it. We might single-handedly keep some gas stations open with the miles we would drive, but we were moving to the 'Ham. We weren't alone; the Census says Effingham's population has almost tripled since 1980, and to the south, Bryan County's growth rate is almost as high.
We have since heard the bad stories about Savannah schools - including gang violence, rape and grade manipulation. Our friends who have lived here longer weren't surprised; to them it was the norm.
Surely, you say, there are similar stories from Effingham schools. Well, we did have a high schooler bring some pot brownies to class last year; after all, we're still heavily agricultural. But unless it's being covered up with CIA-like efficiency, violence is not an issue, and there is no need to manipulate grades.
There are many wonderful people working hard to change the Savannah-Chatham school system's perception. Some parents care, but not enough. A press conference a few months ago held by a group of concerned Beach High School parents drew as many members of the media as moms and dads. Unless some of those parents are the Duggars, the Arkansas family with 19 kids, it wasn't close to being representative of the more than 1,000 Beach students.
Some teachers certainly care, but not enough. Too often, leaders of the Savannah Federation of Teachers seem preoccupied with holding protests against the school board. Are the union dues that pay for politicking more important than classroom performance?
We love Effingham County, but, admittedly, our lives might be easier if we moved to Savannah, where we work and do most of our shopping. However, as long as our kids are in school, and unless we win the Mega-Millions jackpot or, heaven-forbid, get to use our own tax dollars to send our children to any school we choose, we're staying put. We take that portion of our role as parents seriously. If more parents, teachers, administrators and union leaders in Savannah and Chatham County did the same, we wouldn't be having this conversation.