This is a tale of two children, two school districts, four schools, a single African-American mom, and injustice. It is also a tale about how No Child Left Behind has failed. But more than all of that, it’s about how our educational system, our economy, and our society is failing the poor and disadvantaged, regardless of race. It’s about urban and suburban, about the fierce love and protectiveness of a single mom, about her efforts to better her own life as much as it is about her dream that her children would have a better life, and a cautionary tale about what will happen if school vouchers replace the public education system. It’s also about racism and exclusivity. About segregation and separate, but certainly not equal.
Meet Kelly Williams-Bolar
Kelly Williams-Bolar is a 40-year old single mother. She has two daughters, age 14 and 16. And Kelly Willliams-Bolar is now a convicted felon just released after serving her jail time. She was not convicted for drugs, or stealing, or violence. Before this year, she had no criminal record. She was convicted for sending her children to school in the neighboring school district where her 64-year old father lives.
Ms. Williams-Bolar was almost done completing her degree in education at Akron University. She worked as a special education teacher’s aide at Buchtel High School in the Akron School District. Her father had a stroke 3 or 4 years ago, and she was his sole caretaker. She lived in subsidized rented housing on Hartford Street in Akron when she wasn’t at her father’s house on Black Pond Road in adjacent Copley Township. There’s not much distance between the two locations — about 3 miles or so.
I don’t know much more about her than I’ve written here, most of it gleaned from newspaper reports of her trial. I can’t tell you what her favorite thing to do with her daughters was, or how she felt about the pressure of raising two daughters in poverty while working as hard as she could to better herself. I can’t tell you any of that. But I can tell you that she was working for something better for herself and her children, and she was deeply concerned about their safety.
It’s safe to also infer this: If she was working during the day at Buchtel High School, she was attending Akron University at night. That meant it was entirely likely that her girls were either on their own in an unsafe neighborhood or they had to stay with their grandfather when she went to school.
Akron School District
Here are some statistics about the Akron School District and specifically, about the schools where Williams-Bolar’s daughters would have attended.
Perkins Middle School
The eldest daughter would have attended Perkins Middle School. The 2009-2010 report card issued for this school has designated it as a school on “Academic Watch”. It is a Title I school under NCLB. Out of 8 state indicators, it met 1. On the Performance Index it scored 75.4. It did not meet the benchmarks for “adequate yearly progress”. For that school year, 461 students were enrolled. Of those, 92.8% of them are classified as “economically disadvantaged”, 92.1% of them are black, and 5% are multi-racial.
Schumacher Academy Elementary School
The youngest daughter would have attended Schumacher Academy. The 2009-2010 report card issued for this school has designated it as a school making “Continuous Improvement”, which is one step up from “Academic Watch”. It is a Title I school under NCLB. Out of 8 state indicators, it met 2. On the Performance Index it scored 81.0. It did not meet the benchmarks for “adequate yearly progress”. For that school year, 202 students were enrolled. Of those, 100% of them are classified as “economically disadvantaged”. 93.4% of them are black, with the remaining percentages scattered across the other classes, none large enough to measure.
The state pays $6,601 per pupil in the Akron School District. The per-pupil expenditure for Akron is $13,200. The difference is paid for via local taxes and presumably, federal revenues.
Copley – Fairlawn School District
Here are some statistics about the Copley-Fairlawn School District, where Williams-Bolar enrolled her daughters.
Copley-Fairlawn Middle School
The eldest daughter attended Perkins Middle School. The 2009-2010 report card issued for this school has designated it as “Excellent with Distinction”. Out of 11 state indicators, it met 11. On the Performance Index it scored 103.1 out of 120. It met the benchmarks for “adequate yearly progress”. For that school year, 1,060 students were enrolled. Of those, 16.2% of them are classified as “economically disadvantaged”, 73.6% of them are white, 13.9% black, and 6.3% are Asian. Poverty status is ranked as “low poverty”.
Arrowhead Primary Elementary School
The youngest daughter attended Arrowhead Primary Elementary School. The 2009-2010 report card issued for this school has designated it as “Excellent”. Out of 5 state indicators, it met 5. On the Performance Index it scored 103.8 out of 120. It met the benchmarks for “adequate yearly progress”. For that school year, 361 students were enrolled. Of those, 15.9% of them are classified as “economically disadvantaged”, 82.7% of them are white, 9.9% black, and 4.5% are multi-racial. Poverty status is ranked as “low poverty”.
The state pays $2,071 per pupil in the Copley-Fairlawn School District. The per-pupil expenditure for Akron is $9,928. The difference is paid for via local property taxes and presumably, federal revenues. According to this columnist, 53 cents of every property tax dollar in Copley goes to the school system.
Poor children left behind?
The numbers speak for themselves. Any parent evaluating school options for their child would be crazy to choose Akron over Copley-Fairlawn, assuming they had a choice. Further, because both of the Akron schools were Title I schools, parents would have had the option to transfer their children to schools within that district which were performing, but unfortunately, the entire district is underperforming.
It’s impossible to ignore the correlation between poverty and school performance, too, and this is one of the biggest arguments surrounding the whole NCLB model. Underperforming schools end up losing federal funding due to student transfers, which causes them to underperform even more. The disparity between state allocations to the two districts is based upon a weird Ohio formula which is heavily reliant on property tax revenues. According to this report, it’s been found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court on four separate occasions since 1997, and still seems to be quite disparate, simply based upon the split between Akron and Copley-Fairlawn. Akron receives poverty-based adjustments; Copley-Fairlawn does not.
How would vouchers have worked?
Under the voucher proposals floated over the years, each parent would be given a voucher toward their child’s education, which they could then use toward their child’s attendance at a public or private school of their choice. However, vouchers would not have helped this family because the Copley-Fairlawn school district is still a closed district, and doesn’t accept children who do not reside within their district borders.
Not participating in Ohio’s open enrollment program is an easy way of keeping a school system homogenous, wouldn’t you say?
Race is a huge elephant in the room
Let the words in this recent Ohio.com op-ed sink in:
Copley has been working for years to rid the district of every outside student who has not been accepted (they must meet certain academic and behavior standards) and is not paying tuition. I wrote about the crusade back in March of 2008, when I reported that the district was offering $100 rewards to anyone blowing the whistle on an illegal outsider.
I also reported the district’s frustration with a 2006 case in which a different local judge said she could find no case law that supports ”the conclusion that failure to pay tuition constitutes theft of ‘professional services.’ ”
Dyer’s 2008 article is behind an archive paywall, but I found this post referencing it:
Today’s Akron Beacon Journal reports that the school has also hired private detectives to root out the imposters. Even Wheadon is putting in extra hours, seven days a week, unpaid, to track down folks stealing from his till. And he’s not pleased by his discoveries. Many of the families in question rent cheap apartments in Copley, hoping to meet residency requirements. But the families never move, leaving the places in various states of disrepair. “The other day we were in a house (that somebody claimed to be living in),’” Wheadon told the Beacon. “And in one room there are nothing but empty liquor bottles all over the floor. And right in front of you is the living room, with no furniture whatsoever. Just a fireplace and a doughnut. That’s all that’s in the house.” Wheadon is now looking to the state legislature to dissuade parents from sneaking their kids into the district. And he’s found a supporter in Beacon columnist Bob Dyer. “Many of the outlaw parents say they’re financially strapped and only trying to do what’s best for their children,” writes Dyer, who lives in Copley. “But they could say the same thing about stealing new shoes. That excuse just doesn’t cut it. It’s time to adjust the theft laws. That would give legislators something to do while they sit around ignoring the Supreme Court’s order to fix school funding.”
That was 2008. The so-called “thefts of service” Williams-Bolar was accused of took place in 2006-2007. And you know what? They hired private detectives to follow her, videotape her, and ultimately, convict her. Do you think perhaps the color of her skin had something to do with it?
Lest we forget, Williams-Bolar’s father LIVES in Copley. Is he not part of the tax base? Even if he’s renting the home he’s living in, someone owns it and is paying property taxes. So how is it that this becomes “theft”?
Go look at that map again and see how close Copley Township is to Akron boundaries. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when they’re talking about “families in question”, they’re talking about people of color. That bullshit about them not moving doesn’t make sense either, given that these are people living in POVERTY. They’re not exactly in a position to rent two homes, even if one is partly financed via public assistance.
I don’t have the answers to how to lift the children in the Akron school district out of their poverty, but I know this much. When someone is working toward a better life, has no criminal record, and is trying to be a good parent, the color of their skin should not invite them to be followed like a dog in order to toss them out of the white schools.
And that, my friends, is exactly what happened. It’s wrong, it’s ugly, and it’s happening all over this country.