By Christopher Smith
Greg Walker grew up in Murray County Schools, left when he graduated in 1980 and came back last year.
Things have changed, Walker said.
Walker was one of hundreds of parents, students, teachers and local government officials to fill the auditorium of North Murray High School Friday night to hear the school system’s sixth annual State of the School address.
Walker said he’s seen progress in the school system.
“When I left, we didn’t even have this school (North Murray),” he said. “Chatsworth was sort of a bumpkin place. There’s a lot of smart folks here. Probably were some back then, too, but now you can see it on paper.”
Murray County Schools has reported academic growth since 2008. Graduation rates from North Murray and Murray County High School have gone from about 75 percent then to 90 percent now, above the state average of 71.5 percent.
Superintendent Vickie Reed said teachers and administrators have been working closely together to build a “culture with a common language.”
“Education is a joint venture between school staff, parents and the community working together to enable students to thrive and achieve at their highest level,” she said, adding that a “shared vision” is the key to academic success.
With the rise in graduates has come a rise in poverty, school officials said. Approximately 75 percent of the student body is eligible for free or discounted cafeteria food due to their family’s low income, Reed said. To her, that’s an indicator of “a growing poverty problem.”
Maria Gonzalez, a senior at North Murray, said “living poor” can sometimes impact her education. Her father, who works in a local carpet mill in Whitfield County, makes “roughly $18,000 a year” and supports four kids. Gonzalez said she works at a grocery store to make enough money for gas and “to support the family.”
She said she plans to continue working with hopes of “juggling in college, too.”
“It’s tough, sometimes,” she said. “Everyone in my family eats. We have a roof. But we also learn to support ourselves, get jobs, things like that. Maybe earlier than other people. But I feel like I know that, whatever struggle, this too shall pass. I trust in my teachers to be there to help.”
Reed said the school system, and the state, has to do a better job addressing the needs of students struggling with poverty.
“The school system is not only becoming more diverse in its demographics, but it is also increasingly poor,” she said. “To be successful, our public schools must address these shifting populations and the challenges they present.”
Asked for specific ways to address poverty, Reed said the school system is educating teachers and administrators and how to “teach around the differing needs of a varied population.”
“Book studies about poverty and building relationships are conducted with all administrators at the district level,” she said. “Administrators then replicate that with the students, with school leadership teams and with teaching staff.”
Teachers are also going through a video series called “What Effective Teachers Do Differently,” which focuses on educating the poor.
School officials added that the Regional Education Service Agency, a resource arm of the state Department of Education, has sent trainers to teach educators how to make sure low-income students excel on exams.
Reed said the school cannot control poverty levels, but poor students who get a high school diploma have a good chance at bettering themselves.