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Education & Career Dev.

Feb. 12 - Educator Dr.Tonia Howard-Hall Announces Run for District 8 SCCPSS Board of Education Seat Challenging Ruby Jones

Category: Education, Colleges & Career

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

February 12, 2018 – Savannah-born Dr. Tonia Howard-Hall has announced she will challenge current District 8 school board member Ruby Jones in the upcoming May 22 Savannah-Chatham Board of Education race.  Ms. Jones has filed papers seeking re-election.

In an in-depth interview today, Howard-Hall's passion for focusing on SCCPSS’s failing schools is clear; her qualifications for offering solutions to what she terms are the ‘root causes’ also appears substantial, based on both her professional and personal experiences.

Now 57 years old, Ms. Howard-Hall retired in 2015 from the SCCPSS school system, having spent many years as a classroom teacher, but also working in a number of education specialty and volunteers areas, including as one of the original staff members of the ‘Parent University’ program.  She also has experience working for two other public school systems. 

Her first job in teaching, straight out of Florida A&M University, was in the Effingham County system. “You couldn’t get a job in Chatham County, as it was difficult for teachers to retire at that time,” she explains, so she began at Springfield Elementary. After seven years in that county, she returned to Tallahassee and worked in an inner-city classroom for two years, in order to be closer to her grandparents who had raised her when she was very young. Her first job for SCCPSS was as one of the initial group of teachers hired for the new Georgetown Elementary School that opened in 1993. 

SCCPSS later hired her to work as a lead ‘REP’ math teacher, the Remedial Education Program, funded for a number of years by the State of Georgia, where teachers would travel to different SCCPSS buildings each day to work with students and teachers in a team-teaching approach aimed at children not performing at grade level. REP teachers also provided professional development to teachers after school. When the funding was cut, she became a Title 1 teacher. (See resume below.)  

Born on Savannah’s Westside, her story is one that many Savannahnians can identify with:  her mother had six children by her mid-20’s, and Tonya was sent to Florida for 11 years to be raised by her grandparents who wanted to help out.  Her family was living on Burke Street when she was born, living most of her life in the 8th District in the Woodville area on Morin Avenue.  Her friends lived in Francis Bartow, and cousins and aunts grew up West Savannah, as well, though she left for 11 years when she was very young to live with her grandparents.

Back home in Savannah, her father worked two jobs, for Union Camp during the day, and as a longshoreman at the port at night, getting maybe four hours of sleep at night, she remembers. “We hardly ever saw him,” in those years.  But, she was raised to have hope, she says, and began to do well in school at the former Thompkins High School on the Westside. She credits “Mr. Lee Pearson at Thompkins High School who encouraged me to think about going to a four-year college,” instead of the two-year program she had been aiming at.

But what has really changed her life was her experiences as an elementary student.  While her grandparents also did not have much education, they were entrepreneurs, owning a small retail store and a nightclub.  And, when Tonia was held back in the first grade, attending a predominately white school, they hired a tutor for her. 

“I was retained in first grade because I didn’t have the words, because of my grandparents and how they were speaking. But, they hired a tutor, Miss Reeves, who came over every day and used poems and rhyming words to read and talk to me.” To this day, she remembers and can recite ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ and the books Miss Reeves read to her.  Then, in the 2nd grade, she had a teacher “who loved me. She didn’t care what color I was.  A child knows when a teacher cares about them.  There were only two black children in that class. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher.” 

The ’30 Million Words’ Movement and Savannah’s Failing Schools

Howard-Hall says she was a victim of what is now termed the “30 Million Words” gap movement, a research study concluded by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, that showed that children from lower-income families hear 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the tim they are 4 years old, prior to entering kindergarten.  

Running for office gelled last year when her sister passed away and she received temporary guardianship of her four-year old niece.  “I noticed that she had a deficit in her vocabulary,  and wasn’t speaking in complete sentences. I was really hurt that my own niece had fallen victim,” to language deficit, and “decided I need to continue to work with the community, to have a positive impact on children.”   

“My focus is to try to end the escalating pattern of failing schools.  The span of children who spend six years in an under-performing school (K-5th grade), who then go to an under-performing middle school, who then go to Groves High School for example, or a similar under-performing high school, has to be broken.  They’re left behind.  I would like to see the program at Woodville-Thompkins, a great program, expanded. It’s a blueprint that needs to be replicated in a way that all children can become college-career ready.” 

SCCPSS has eight schools now with a three-year average of below 54 percent, she explains. “These are at the bottom five percent of the entire state of Georgia…The root cause is the lack of early intervention.  When you start with children coming in ’30 million words behind,’ we need to improve our community ties,” she states.  And, she believes it is a unified city/county/SCCPSS approach that is needed, using the neighborhood-based schools.

Adult illiteracy is also something that she would like to work on, where adults in the community who are functionally illiterate are often the parents of these children.  “We need to work with both very young children and their parents, together.”   

“These buildings we have, we’re all in one community, and we really need to do a better job with collaboration,” she adds. “That is a problem that I hear at my neighborhood association meetings.   Those schools and those libraries should not sit dormant (after school.)  You have to think outside the box.  But’s what most important is not the outside of the building, the construction, but what goes on inside.”   

In her own family, she has seen what can happen. “I have a nephew who finally got his GED, who now has a great job,” but she sees many others who have not completed their education.  

She believes the public schools should be open to all families, including those in private school during the day.  She has also served as a Title 1 Program Manager for private schools, writing needs assessment plans, and believes that parents of children in private schools should also have access to public school buildings for programs and recreation. “They paid for those buildings, too.” 

And, If elected, she would like to work with the Board of Ed on a different approach to working with students who are not headed to college, “not scoring 80 percent or better on their standardized tests and with great behavior,” she explains. “The former Richard Arnold program was a vocational high school. We need a school that any child can attend,” and learn a trade.  “I think we will have less problems in alternative schools if kids have hope. My parents taught us hope.”  

“I think certain schools are improving – we have our highlight schools.  But our high poverty, low achieving schools, we don’t see much improvement,” she believes. “You have to have the right teachers in the schools that will benefit the children. You put new teachers, who come from the middle class, and don’t understand what poverty is, and they’re struggling with classroom management.  And, the old teachers who are seasoned, are retiring.  We have teachers who, even with the training, they don’t have relationships with the kids,” they don’t really understand the kids they are teaching, she believes.   

To begin her campaign, she lent her campaign $500 last spring, has a committee of family and friends, and is going out door to door talking to people, and attending neighborhood association meetings in District 8.  She also has a Facebook page where voters can follow her campaign.  

Her resume and brochure state her leadership experience includes: 

  • Experience with facilitation of school improvement initiatives

  • Provided professional development to teachers, school administrators and parents

  • Extensive experience with state and federal audits

  • Assisted with approving school improvement plans for public, charter and private schools

  • Assisted with preparing budgets for a combined 18 million dollars in federal funds

  • Written and revised district policies for implementing federal mandates

  • Experience with curriculum and grant writing

Ms. Howard-hall is married to Julius Hall, with two grown biological children and a step daughter, all educated in Chatham County public schools. Her son, an All-American in football, attended Savannah High School and is completing his law degree. One daughter is now at Kennesaw State University, and other is working in the Chatham County court system.

For clarification, neither she or her husband are related to Alderman John Hall, or School Board member Cornelia “Connie” Hall. 

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