09/28/08 — School district starts kitchen table conversation Monday

View Archive

School district starts kitchen table conversation Monday

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 28, 2008 12:21 AM

Citing one of the biggest problems in the county as communication, school officials hope the district's first "kitchen table conversation" Monday night will start changing all that.

At the very least, the event will be a good way to get the community engaged, said Thelma Smith, Board of Education chairwoman.

"We have got to talk to people," she said. "It seems like we want to talk about, or at, but not talk to each other.

"You can learn a whole lot when you talk to people."

The "kitchen table conversation" format, adopted from the model successfully used by Durham Public Schools, will be introduced in Wayne County on Monday from 7-8:45 p.m. at Madison Avenue Baptist Church. The first topic will be the school system's dropout rate.

The premise is to create an inviting setting -- complete with checkered tablecloths and snacks -- where a variety of people can join together to discuss issues.

There will not be a negative debate, organizers said. Instead, it will be a format where participants are instructed to make suggestions and work toward finding solutions.

When the discussion was originally announced, school officials said the event would be limited to 90 people. That has been relaxed, Mrs. Smith said.

The initial restrictions, she explained, were because of space issues at the church.

"To keep the 'kitchen table' feel, with eight to 10 at each table, and because we wanted to use the round tables, I understood they have 14 (tables)," she said. "It doesn't mean you can't come. I asked them to put some chairs around the walls.

"(Ninety is) the number we can serve for the conversation. The rest will be for others who want to observe and listen."

Mrs. Smith said it would be ideal to have "standing room only" for the introductory session.

"If we can get people there, for the next one we may have to find another venue to accommodate them," she said. "We want everybody to come who's interested and not turn anyone away.

"The one in Durham, they had to keep finding bigger venues."

The board chairwoman is optimistic about what such events will produce.

"This is going to be a way we can improve our communication, especially the first one," she said. "We're going to talk about dropouts and graduation rates -- one affects the other. And we're going to ask them to suggest what to talk about at the next one."

It's been a challenging period for the county, and especially for the school system, Mrs. Smith said. Perception is everything and despite efforts to improve the educational system in Wayne County, there is admitted divisiveness -- between communities, between the school board and county commission.

That's why literally "coming to the table" could be a positive first step.

"We have made some great improvements in our schools, but that doesn't mean we have not got a lot of work to do," Mrs. Smith said. "We want to continue a lot of things, like the academies that we have started."

Getting the public involved will be essential to any success that is forthcoming, she added.

"Our parents are our greatest stakeholders, the business people have a stake in this, too, so everybody who's interested in education in any way, shape or fashion ought to be coming to these meetings," she said. "We can't do it all by ourselves. ...

"Teachers can teach all day if they care to but sometimes if these kids are not motivated or inspired, it doesn't do any good. The community has got to show that it's supporting them."

The important thing now is to create a sense of unity and working toward positive outcomes, Mrs. Smith said.

"I love helpful criticism but don't just blame people. Roll your sleeves up and come on, show that you care," she said. "We have got to have a supportive community behind us."