A rural superintendent says, while urban areas also have poverty, they have access to human and monetary capital that does not exist in many remote areas of Georgia. 

Rural superintendent reflects on solutions that never come

In my many years of writing about education in Georgia, Allen Fort has been a helpful voice on the challenges that beset rural schools. Fort is Taliaferro County Schools superintendent and also the principal of the 180-student district.

In a few months, Fort will retire after more than 45 years in education, including a 2014 run in the GOP primary for state school superintendent. 

In the meantime, he is still advocating for rural schools, speaking on Thursday to the state Board of Education.

There’s a lot of discussion in Atlanta about the needs of rural students and their communities, but not that much action.

Tired of waiting for the state to solve the health care crisis in remote parts of the state, Fort helped create a community health clinic based at the school in 2018.

“This will not seem very significant in the metro area; there are urgent care offices on every corner and huge hospitals nearby, but to the smallest populated county in Georgia that is without any health care facilities, this was a wonderful day for us. In a nation like ours, it is almost unconscionable that a county does not have any heath care facilities; that a school system has to fund a health care facility to care for its students and the community, but we did,” he said at the time.

“If a student gets sick, as is fairly often, especially in flu season, our parents have to leave their job, which is usually in Thomson, Washington or Greensboro, and drive to the school to pick up their child,” he said.  “Jobs in this area are scarce and few can afford to miss a day or half day to drive to the school, take their child 20 miles to the nearest doctor, wait on the pharmacy to fill a prescription and take their child back home, then return to work, if it is not too late.”

A few weeks ago, Fort sent me a note about rural schools, spurred by my report of yet another discussion at an Atlanta conference of how to improve rural education. I asked him to turn his comments into an AJC Get School piece. 

Here it is: 

By Allen Fort

I believe I am truly tired of people continually talking about rural school systems that lack money or programs and the need to do something.  

Haven't we "talked" enough? 

We must realize poverty and being rural did not begin yesterday. Being rural and poor has been going on since 1733 in Georgia, yet, even in 2020, we still hold forums, town hall meetings, talks, conferences, etc. to address the issue.  

At some point, someone (anyone) needs to stop talking and move forward. Those in power need to recognize the causes of rural poverty and technically what it truly is. 

Poverty in Atlanta, while it is being poor, is different than poverty in Taliaferro County. Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County Schools have access to human and monetary capital that does not exist in Taliaferro County. So, what may be a solution for one set of schools is not the solution for another. 

We need to know how "the magic answer" (and I am sure some politician has it) will positively impact and influence education (and the rewards thereof) in that school, system, area, and the state, how can we address those causes, and what relevant actions can/should/need to be taken to at least start toward some solution. 

If I sound frustrated, it is because I am. 

We seem to talk a lot; intelligent people share insights, powerful people speak up, knowledgeable people lend expertise, yet here we are, yak, yak, yak, without coming up with any solution about what to do.

Heck, to my knowledge, we have not even thought about beginning to move; only to talk and show concern, then find an easier topic to act on.

Taliaferro County School Superintendent Allen Fort
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

All the while, those school districts that exist in poverty continue to be tasked with providing a quality education.

While Taliaferro County K-12 does provide an excellent education for our kids, do you think for one second that our education rivals that of a Cobb, Forsyth or Gwinnett? We have the motivation and the commitment, but lack the money of those wealthier counties.

Yet, we are held to the same expectations as those districts. And we seek to meet them every day. Our kids deserve the same opportunity and we will give it to them the best we can.

It will take a concerted effort. We, parents, educators and community members must instill in our students a true will to learn and support them in their endeavors. All us “old” folks out there, these kids are either going to be paying your taxes and Social Security or you are going to be paying for theirs. Your choice.

We have to believe in our teachers, who graduated from reputable colleges and universities with all of the right educational tools to teach our kids. Our state rating formula does not measure work ethic, heart, soul, and caring attitude of a teacher, a student, or a community. We must unburden teachers from assessments, scores and ratings. Any ratings should come in 10 to 20 years when the students they taught have jobs and are good citizens.

We must figure out a sane, common sense way to alleviate college graduates facing lifelong debt. That they graduated and, hopefully, have a job should be payback enough.

We need to find out what it will take to get a local economy moving and make that happen. Where there are jobs, we need to motivate people to work. 

We actually need to do something. Failure is not in doing something that doesn’t work, failure is doing nothing at all.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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