A small group of concerned citizens gathered at the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road earlier this week to discuss the need for more parent involvement at schools in the Muscogee County School District.
The summit, convened by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, drew a wide range of community leaders with varying opinions on the relationship between school and community. Panelists included MCSD Superintendent David Lewis, Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman, Project Rebound Director J. Aleem Hud, Columbus Times Publisher Petra Gertjegerdes and Trell X, a member of a new grassroots group called the People’s Party for Independence.
Barbara Pierce, a former school board member and chairwoman of the NAACP’s education committee, facilitated the meeting.
Lewis told the group that a child’s academic success depends on the three pillars of home, school and community. However, several parents who attended the summit said the district doesn’t always accommodate parents who try to get involved.
Gertjegerdes opened the conversation with her personal story as the mother of five children in the school district. She said three of her children suffer from disabilities such as attention-deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and she has had difficulty getting them the support that they need.
“Several times I’ve asked for help, and it’s hard to get help, even when you do your research,” she said. “I had to get an advocate for me and my children because some teachers and administrators are very uncooperative at times. All they want to do is put the blame on the children, even though the children have medical problems and are on medication.”
She said she was called before an MCSD truancy committee, and the district took her to court, even though she had documentation from family doctors. She believes social workers and other personnel need sensitivity training to deal with families and children with special needs.
“I have an issue with the way Muscogee County School District deals with parents that have problems,” she said. “And sometimes I felt as if I had been bullied. And myself being a survivor of domestic violence, this was very disappointing to say the least.”
Lewis said the school district is not perfect and still has a lot of work to do when it comes to children with special needs. He said special education is one area that he considered “behind the times” when he first came to the district. He said Special Education Director Mary Lewis has been working to train her staff to work more effectively with that population of students.
Lewis said the district also is scheduled to open an autism center at Jordan High School in January. It will be the first of three such centers to deal with a wide spectrum of students who are now diagnosed with various types of the condition. There will be one each at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.
MCSD also is one of three school districts in the state to receive a “Project Aware” grant to address mental illnesses in the schools.
“It is scary, some of the situations that we see coming,” he said. “And this is from all demographic backgrounds. It’s not just black, it’s not just white, and it’s not just poverty. We’re seeing an uptick in mental health-related issues. And Project Aware is in place, not only to deal with the students, but also to provide support and resources that parents can access to try and deal with those challenges.”
Lewis tried to assure the parents that the district is making progress.
“We’re trying to make sure our teachers — in the regular classrooms and our special ed teachers — are trained in how to deal with these students, and it’s an ongoing process,” he said. “But all that said, since we’re here to talk about parent involvement, it does need to be a partnership with the parents working together to address the needs both at home and at school.”
Waleisah Wilson, a local parent who runs an employment agency for ex-felons, said she pulled her daughter out of an MCSD school because of bullying and now she home schools her. Yet, she remains concerned about what she called a “School to Prison Pipeline.”
She said some children come from homes where their parents may be on drugs or they’re not getting the proper nutrition. When they come to school, they are burdened by family dynamics, which leads to them being labeled troublemakers.
“I think a lot of the problem is our children are automatically sent to the principal’s office, security, and then are locked up,” she said. “That’s my concern.”
Wilson asked the superintendent what is being done to recruit more black teachers, especially those who are male.
Lewis said the district has been trying to recruit more minority teachers through historically black colleges, social media and job fairs. However, there’s a teacher shortage throughout the country because of the retiring baby boom population and younger people are not going into the field, he explained.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find teachers, period,” he said. “The nation is undergoing a teacher shortage like we’ve never seen before.”
In response to questions about sensitivity training, he said the district is building an urban lab in the new Spencer High School, and will work in partnership with Columbus State University. It will be a laboratory where college students can learn how to work effectively with students in an urban environment.
Lewis said the school district also needs more support from parents and community organizations. He said the district recently received a $5 million grant to address college readiness for the most needy students in middle and high school. He said it will include parent workshops and other activities to increase parent involvement over the next seven years.
“Over the years, schools have taken on more and more challenges that used to be out in the community and at home,” he said. “The reality of it is, schools have children 180 days a year out of 365 for about seven hours a day. They are someplace else the rest of the time. We have to have the support and working together of the parents and the community.”