Q&A with Chain Gang Elementary author Jonathan Grant

Why did you write Chain Gang Elementary?

I tell people it’s my revenge for having to read Lord of the Flies in high school.  Actually, I first started on a completely different project. When I became a PTA co-president at a high-achieving public school, I was interested in publishing a non-fiction book—a how-to guide for parent leaders taking over the reins of a parent-teacher group. And then I saw Murder at the PTA Luncheon. No, actually, while studying the subject, I came across this phrase, or something like it: “Every good school is fundamentally the same, but every bad school is unique.”

This got me thinking: Hmm. Unique is more interesting. Being a novelist at heart (although a journalist and editor by training), I decided to tackle the subject in a different genre: as a fictional “how-not-to” guide on parent-educator relationships.

Can you tell us more specifically what Chain Gang Elementary is about?

It’s a tale of war between a PTA president and a grade-school principal, with casualties … and jokes. It’s funny. It’s not so funny. The plot follows the tenure of the first man in twenty years to head the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization. It seems the gender is cursed. He’s a reformer, and he finds himself at odds with the principal, who is very authoritarian. She won’t listen to his ideas, and he’s more than willing to go over her head, so they have a bad relationship from the beginning. And it gets worse. Much, much worse.

How much worse?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest worse.

How did you come up with the title? This isn’t about a prison school, is it?

No, there aren’t any prison uniforms or rock-breaking gangs, although . . . I’d better just leave it there for now. Actually, the title comes from the unfortunate nickname Malliford Elementary School picks up after the principal institutes a draconian punishment for a prank pulled by a 5th grader. It’s really the start of the trouble.

And then what happens?

The nickname sticks, parents rise up in protest, tensions mount, and the school becomes a cultural battlefield—with students and teachers caught in the middle—when an influx of low-income students are redistricted into the school. Each faction tries to apply its solutions to the “problem” of low test scores, resulting in a testing scandal—although different from the one that has plagued Atlanta public schools.

You’re an Atlanta writer, right?

I live in DeKalb, right next door to Atlanta, and some would say it’s got an equally troubled school system. Our former superintendent has been indicted on racketeering charges, and the school board has turned on itself, with members leaking damaging information to the media whenever they don’t get their way. And apparently all of them do it. As Mark Twain famously said, “In the first place, God created idiots. This was for practice. Then He created School Boards.”

Is this story autobiographical?

No. The novel incorporates themes and storylines from everywhere–local news stories, national scandals, you name it. The teachers, students, and parents of Chain Gang Elementary exist only on its pages, and they are true to themselves, not to any memories of mine. Of course, there’s an old saying, “Every writer is still trying to win that third-grade fight,” which may explain why protagonist Richard Gray is still coming to grips with his childhood traumas. But as far as parallels to my experience as a PTA president, there aren’t any that I can see. It was a happy time for me.

Can you tell us more about the testing scandal?

No comment. I don’t want to spoil the plot.

What other works have you completed or been involved with?

I’m the co-author/editor of The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, which was named the state’s Book of the Year when it was published. I’ve optioned a historical screenplay about two famous fugitive slaves to Hollywood, and another novel I’ve written is currently being marketed to publishers by my agent. I’m also preparing my next novel, Brambleman (a Forsyth County saga), for publication on the 25th anniversary of Hosea Williams’ anti-intimidation march to Cumming.

Anything else you’re working on right now?

Mainly, I’m wearing a publisher’s hat and setting up Thornbriar Press to distribute Chain Gang. As a parent, I’ve been  interested in education for many years. Now that my kids are in college, some of my attention has shifted, and I publish Georgia Colleges  (www.georgiacollegesblog.com) in addition to keeping up a Darwin-Awardish blog for Chain Gang Elementary. I hope to publish a guidebook to Georgia colleges in the near future, and, in keeping with the spirit of Chain Gang, a humorous “how-not-to” guide for parents with children in public schools.

Are there any upcoming events you’ll be participating in?

First and foremost, I’ll have a booth at the Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day Weekend, and I’m looking forward to that. You can find me next door to the Starbucks on Ponce de Leon. I’ll have discounted prices on the book and free giveaways, so it should be fun. I also plan to exhibit the book at the Dahlonega Literary Festival later this fall, and in Savannah in February. I’ll be setting up book signings as opportunities arise.

Anything else you’d like to add?

You can find out more about Chain Gang Elementary by visiting the book’s website, www.chaingangelemtary.com and clicking the “About” tab. You can also download the first three chapters for free in pdf format and keep up with my somewhat skewed take on the news on The Chain Gang Blog.

Inside an “F” school

Failure schoolThis is a must-read for parents and educators–and especially reformers whose narrow focus is on what’s going on inside school buildings.

Everyone who wants to blame schools and teachers for what’s going wrong in American schools needs to read this special series from the Tulsa World, “Inside an ‘F’ School,” which details the factors that go into making a “bad” school:

Every other Friday without fail, Judi Wilson, LaChelle Harris and Kenneth Stanley Sr. can be found at Hawthorne Elementary School selling sour pickles and fresh-popped popcorn to raise money for the PTA.

It’s a good thing they do, because they’re three of only five parents in the PTA at a school with 386 students. In December, teachers were the only ones who attended the monthly PTA meeting.

… Faculty and staff say they’re simply not getting the support they need from parents. The office staff grapple with chronic absenteeism. This is evidenced in the school’s student mobility rate, which counts every enrollment and withdrawal after the first day. At Hawthorne, it was 108 percent for 2012-13, primarily because of enrolled students being dropped from the rolls for excessive absences — sometimes multiple times throughout the year.

By comparison, the mobility rate at A-plus neighborhood school Carnegie Elementary is 24 percent.

Hawthorne counselor Janice Watkins recently had to resort to home visits because parents or guardians of 15 students weren’t responding to repeated phone calls over the course of three weeks about the possibility of their children having special education needs.

Early-childhood education teachers say a significant portion of their students enter school profoundly behind in basic skills and knowledge.

“I have students who can barely form a sentence or who don’t know their own first names because they’ve only been spoken to in basic commands or called a nickname,” said Patricialynn Holweg, who teaches prekindergarten. “They’re so far behind that even when we make great strides, they’re still behind the others.”

You can read more here. This is part of a special report that ran in the World‘s Sunday and Monday editions. Well worth reading and sharing. Here’s the link to the series.

20 grand in PTA money missing

embezzlementThat certainly is a large amount of money. Not again, you say?

Of course again.

It happens all the time.  Now,  the allegations are surfacing in Westerville, Ohio.


10TV reports:

WESTERVILLE, Ohio – Westerville Schools and Blendon Township Police tell 10TV that there is an ongoing investigation into missing PTA funds at Huber Ridge Elementary School.

A spokesperson for the school district says the investigation has been ongoing for several months and says it appears more than $20,000 is missing.

10TV is not naming the person of interest in the case because no criminal charges have been filed.

The school district released this statement:  “Parent Teacher Associations are completely separate entities from the schools they support. As such, the alleged incident does not involve district resources.”

Click here to see the video.



chain_gang_elementary cropped cover“In the beginning, God created idiots. This was for practice. Then He created school boards.” — Mark Twain

A novel about adults behaving badly

“… Chain Gang Elementary is darkly funny, entertaining, well-written, and has a great deal of heart.” — Shay’s Word Garden

“Acerbic wit.”– Publishers Weekly

Click a link to get your copy now!

Free Kindle version at Amazon.com:
Free Nook version at Barnes and Noble.
Free iBooks version at iTunes store.

Also, for a limited time, get the award-winning BRAMBLEMAN for only $0.99!  Hurry–offer expires soon!

All Hail the Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test!

Free:  the Kindle, Nook, or Apple version of Chain Gang Elementary!

In recognition of all the testing scandals going on, I offer you this brief excerpt from my novel, Chain Gang Elementary. As you’ll see, Malliford Elementary has its own testing issues, which, in the ened, will lead to a scandal with a unique twist. To learn more about this remarkable book, click here.

From Chapter Seventeen: 

Due to federal mandate, learning was put on hold in February. The Better Schools initiative—or BS, as teachers called it—required high-stakes, curriculum-based testing. For reasons known only to bureaucrats, the state examined students on their cumulative grade-level learning with three months still to go in the school year. The state’s Department of Education had adopted the unfortunately but aptly named Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test to measure progress. Its acronym was never used, for obvious reasons. County educators referred to it as DESI (Don’t Even Say It), and some irreverent teachers called it DUMP.

Though often ridiculed, the test was no laughing matter. Pride, money, stars, and housing prices rode on the results. Teachers in schools with improved test scores received bonuses; schools with declining scores faced sanctions. In the past, Malliford Elementary had nothing to fear. But now the influx of underachievers from Chantilly Arms threatened to lower scores and put the school on the state’s Needs Improvement list (often called the S**T list, for obvious reasons). This would be an unmitigated disaster, but it could get even worse. After a school languished for three years on the Needs Improvement list, its teachers were taken out behind the trailers and shot. At least that’s how Mrs. Leland explained it to PTO President Richard Gray.

With its status as a good school on the line, the stakes were terribly high. Since December, Mrs. Baines, Malliford’s vice principal, did little besides what she called “testprep.” No one took DESI more seriously than reigning Teacher of the Year Sarah Vandenburg, who gave her second-graders practice exams the first day of school and tested them weekly thereafter—and let them watch TV, until she got caught.

Despite the newly challenging demographics, Malliford Principal Estelle Rutherford demanded that test scores rise. She also suggested heads would roll if they didn’t. She’d already picked heads, having established scapegoats like Avon Little by filling their rooms with Underintellachievers.

Thus motivated by the principal’s shrill cheerleading, teachers masked their desperation with pasted-on smiles as testing week drew near. They tried to create a festive air in their classrooms, handing out balloons, promising parties for high-scoring classes, and sending brightly-colored notes home to parents with tips on “how to get your students on the winning team.” Miz R’s “Secret Formula for Success” called for an 8:00 p.m. bedtime and a hearty breakfast on testing days. She also suggested kids watch TV to relax.

Richard considered this last idea a terrible one, and he would have said something to the principal had they been on speaking terms. Instead, he editorialized against it in February’s Duck Call, urging kids to read a book instead, and quoted Stan to piss off the principal even more. Unfortunately, Richard no longer knew how many newsletters actually made it home to parents, since some other teachers now followed Mrs. Vandenburg’s lead and threw them away.

Though appalled at the school’s excessive zeal, Richard did hope Malliford would gain a top-ten ranking on his watch. A home in a five-star school district was worth $30,000 more than one in a four-star zone, according to Barbara. If he was ever going to get out of town, he wanted cash from the deal. This made him one of many “whores for scores,” as Rita so indelicately put it.

* * *

Miz Rutherford devoutly believed a diet of grapes and bottled water for test-takers would help her win that elusive fifth star. She’d been preaching this message for months and needed the PTO’s help to get the word out to parents of test takers.

“It’s scientific,” she’d previously explained to the PTO board. “Grapes assist the brain in the hydration process, which speeds up decision making, as anyone familiar with brain-based learning models understands.” She’d finished off with an imperious glare at Candace and Cindi Lou.

“So kids still get wrong answers, just quicker,” Richard quipped from the podium.

“You’re missing the point,” she said.

Then again, he’d missed every point she’d jabbed at him. Richard turned to the Drug Awareness chairperson and said, “This grape thing explains why people who drink a lot of wine think they’re smart.”

This prompted titters, but the overall mood was sober and serious. Some board members worried about allergic reactions and frequent bathroom breaks brought on by this brain-hosing. However, most believed in trying anything that might improve test scores, so they ignored warnings about poop and pee on first-grade floors from Candace, who glared back at the principal as she spoke.

A motion calling for the PTO “to make necessary arrangements to assure an ample supply of grapes during testing” was quashed by Bessie Harper, mother of all room mothers, when she said the magic words every president longs to hear: “Don’t bother. I’ll take care of it.”

Bessie’s first e-mail to room mothers called for green grapes and half-liter bottles of water. After Mrs. Baines yelped “Wrong grapes! Wrong grapes!” in the hall to Richard, e-mail corrections went out calling for red grapes. A parent wanted to know if purple grapes were acceptable. More checking, another e-mail: “Due to lack of research on purple or black grapes, those varieties should not be used. Parents should send red grapes, seedless of course.”

Richard referred to these in his e-mails as The Grapes of Math.

A question arose: What brand of water was best? Another flurry of e-mails: Miz Rutherford declared Hydrate the brand of choice. Its parent company happened to back The Mentoring Initiative and planned to install soft-drink machines in the school. Richard tried to start a rumor that top schools used Perrier, but his pernicious claim never took hold.

“What if scores go down?” Bessie asked him during the second round of e-mails.

“Then we sell the information to Hydrate’s competitors,” Richard replied. “As a fund-raiser.”

* * *

On February 12, parents and teachers held their collective breath as students began taking DESIs with all the earnest zealousness of a “Duck and Cover” air raid drill. With rankings on the line, every other school and student in the state was their enemy, while sharpened pencils and childish wits were their only friends. One way or another, they would fulfill the BS mandate.

What kind of test-takers were these Mallifordians? Would the world bow down before them, or would they be Underintellachievers, road kill on the superhighway to tomorrow?

Deep in the bowels of Malliford, someone already had an idea how it would turn out.

Come, let us test now, said the spider to the flies.

To purchase Chain Gang Elementary, click here for options.  For Grant’s Darwin-Awardish take on education, check out the Chain Gang Blog, and for news about the book, visit Chain Gang Elementary’s facebook page.