09/30/08 — Parents, schools meet at the table

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Parents, schools meet at the table

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 30, 2008 1:55 PM

News-Argus/Greg Sousa

Jessica Cerny writes down some of the solutions to improving the county schools' dropout rate during Wayne County Public Schools' first "kitchen table conversation" Monday.

Michael Daniels' sons -- James, 10, and Joseph, 7 -- might not be considered likely candidates to drop out of school.

But he is taking no chances.

Daniels brought both with him Monday night to Madison Avenue Baptist Church for the school district's first "kitchen table conversation," where the dropout rate was up for discussion.

James, a fifth-grader at Neuse Charter School in Smithfield, became interested in the subject because of his father, who works at the prison in Goldsboro.

"My dad said we're going to study about this," the youth said. "I have been writing papers and stuff about it, why they drop out, some preventions."

It's not an option for James, he said, because "education is fun."

But dad thought the dialogue would be beneficial.

"It's huge because of the African American kids, where the turning point can be seen at the fourth-grade level, and we have one in that age now so we can reinforce that," Daniels said. "From working inside of the correctional facility, I see the other side as well."

Monday evening's two-hour event drew 95 people to discuss solutions to the dropout problem in Wayne County.

But it was also an education for some.

Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability, explained about dropout and graduation rates -- two terms often used interchangeably but which are very different measures.

The cohort graduation rate tracks students starting in ninth grade and calculates the percentage who graduate in four years or less, while the dropout rate tracks all students in grades 9-12 from the beginning of one school year to the next.

Unfortunately, it is not a clear-cut measure in that students who move, transfer or otherwise cannot be located, or return to school and graduate late, can still be counted as dropouts, elevating a school district's rate.

Parent Callie Grady's hand immediately went up. She had dropped out of school in 10th grade, she said, only to return later and obtain her diploma. Could she still be categorized as a dropout?

"Why can't these rules be changed?" she asked.

McFadden replied that some of the regulations came from the state, others as part of the federal program No Child Left Behind.

"The real numbers we're after are the kids who drop out and don't return," he explained.

The premise for the "first of many" such conversations was not only to share information with parents and stakeholders in the district, but to collect ideas and open lines of communication across the county, said Thelma Smith, Board of Education chairwoman.

The audience spanned diverse backgrounds -- parents and retirees, business leaders and educators gathered around 14 tables to discuss causes and solutions for students dropping out in Wayne County.

Among the reasons suggested were lack of motivation, lack of parental involvement, standardized testing, peer pressure, parental level of education, overcrowded classrooms, discipline and academic problems.

Then each group brainstormed possible solutions -- support for teachers and staff, communication between teachers and parents, enhanced recruitment efforts.

But not before Dr. Sandra McCullen, associate superintendent for curriculum, presented a list of programs and efforts the district has introduced to enhance its education system.

At its conclusion, one parent said he was surprised to learn that most of the ideas his table had suggested as "new" solutions were actually already in place in the school system.

Such comments pleased Mrs. Smith, one of the event's organizers since witnessing its success last year in Durham Public Schools.

"I think it's great -- lively conversation," she said of the evening. "This is exactly what we wanted, exactly what we needed. Hopefully from this our parents might get excited enough to write their legislators about some of these crazy rules."

It was beneficial for the parents to see firsthand what the school board is up against, she added.

"That's where our problem is -- other folks are carrying the message out there but cannot explain all those things, the variables we have to deal with," she said.

School board member Rick Pridgen was also pleased with the event.

"This is exactly what we were looking for," he said, although "you never know what you're getting the first time. If we can grow it from this, I'll be pleased."

Ms. Grady was not as excited about the turnout.

"I believe that there needs to be more of a drive to get the parents here to discuss this," she said. "Really, I'm disappointed. Out of all the schools in Wayne County, to have no more than this."

Patsy Faison, principal of Tommy's Road Elementary School and moderator for the evening, presented a different way to view it.

"You can infectiously tell somebody that, 'You missed it,'" she said. "This was an effort that we felt was very, very well presented with your participation."

"These are our children, parents should be here," Ms. Grady replied.

"Parental accountability is what we're after," Mrs. Faison agreed.

Officials hope word of mouth will evoke even more response when future events are scheduled.

In the meantime, information gathered from the first "conversation" will be transcribed and made available within a week or so to schools, principals and the school board, Mrs. Smith said.

The date and location for the next event is to be determined. Several topics for consideration were mentioned, though -- disciplining with respect, parental accountability and empowering male students.