05/24/10 — Schools pledge to keep working on issues

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Schools pledge to keep working on issues

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 24, 2010 1:46 PM

Wayne County Schools superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor disagreed Friday with the perception the district is racially biased, but said that it "stands ready" to make whatever improvements might be needed to improve the current climate.

Taylor and Rick Pridgen, school board chairman, discussed last week's two-day visit by representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice. Two community forums were held for the public to weigh in following a complaint filed in December by the North Carolina NAACP alleging inequities in the public schools.

Pridgen said some people may have misunderstood the intent of the forums -- federal officials were here to simply gather more information, while many of those in attendance seemed to be focused on making individual statements about their own children or personal situations.

"I can see why people may want to vent or use those kinds of venues to vent their situation because they feel like they haven't been heard," he said.

At the same time, though, Taylor said, there are two sides to every story and always more information that could have been shared by school officials.

"We certainly stand ready if OCR has any questions, to provide other information that would give a more full view," he said. "If they find areas that we need to work on, we will work on them -- adjust and make changes and revisions as we need to."

Pridgen said he had received a number of calls from citizens with the impression that the forums were actually a "called school board meeting," including a Scout troop that attended on that premise. However, neither he nor Taylor attended the meetings.

"People asked why wasn't the Board of Education involved, why weren't we there speaking?" he said. "It was not our place to really speak at that meeting. It was their venue to hear from the people."

Some of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that the school system was asked to send out notification of the public meetings, Taylor said. Information was distributed through each of the schools.

Overall, the superintendent said, they are appreciative of what OCR has done in its "next step" of the complaint process.

"They were there to hear from the community," Taylor said. "They were not there to hear from the Board of Education. That's why you didn't see anyone from the board or the superintendent."

The district has worked with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in the past, but not with the Department of Justice.

"They were here in a very neutral way," he said. "They're not saying in any way that Wayne County has violated any type of law. Our experience thus far is they have been very fair.

"They will evaluate the data and they will make the decision as to whether we need to make any changes."

And the public forums were not the only opportunity that representatives from OCR had to gain insight into the workings of Wayne County Public Schools. They also visited several district schools, Taylor said.

"They spent about an hour-plus at each school -- talked to administrators, counselors, staff. They just went in and asked very inquiring questions, because there was certainly data that they wanted to receive," he said. "At this point we're not sure what the next step is, if they're going to come back and interview people. So far, we have met every request they have sent our way.

"It's been very cordial, very positive, not adversarial at all. At the same time, we certainly would like to resolve this issue as quickly as possible."

Taylor stressed the fact that the recent situation centers around a complaint, not a lawsuit.

"Anybody can file a complaint," he said. "Our job is to hopefully provide the data. They have a lot of data to go through. They have been very thorough, they have done their homework, but they have also asked some very factual questions. I have guaranteed them, as superintendent, that we will give them the correct information, not just something that we create out of the air."

Both men said they have not liked hearing allegations of inequities or racial bias because they feel that educators are working to create a solid level of educational services for every child.

There are, they admitted, some areas that present greater challenges than others, but that those are not necessarily attributed to race.

"It might be socio-economic situations," Pridgen said. "There's many factors that play into the more challenging areas that we have in schools."

Taylor said additional resources have been allocated to schools based on need. That is something the district assesses on a regular basis.

"Individually, we look at each school and try to put into place strategies and programs to improve," he said. "Every year, we look at the needs, the programs, the resources and where they are needed. I think we have done a good job of it."

"It's not something you do every four years and stick to the same game plan -- you make your re-adjustments every year," Pridgen added.

As for the recurring comments about problems in the city schools, particularly Goldsboro High School, Pridgen -- himself a graduate of the school -- bristles when he hears that.

"I speak to civic groups and when people talk about discipline, I say, 'Go with me, you pick whatever school you want to go in and you pick the day,'" he said. "Go during class change. I have yet to walk into the hallway at GHS, where students are not polite and oftentimes dressed well, young men wearing ties. These kids have a strong sense of pride.

"The general public and people that made those comment do not realize the hard work that goes into that. We do have areas like I said, that are more challenging. But we have got elementary schools that are challenging."

The superintendent said he would also like to improve the notion that parents are not being heard, or their complaints are not handled. There is, he said, a protocol in place to address problems that arise -- starting at the school level through the teacher and principal, up through the central office.

"We try to intervene when it becomes necessary," he said. "Unfortunately, every time an issue is brought up, parents may not get the decision that they want, but we certainly try to consider all factors and then to reach a conclusion hopefully that's suitable for the situation.

"We certainly meet with parents. We address those concerns and we try to resolve issues. For someone to say that we do not respond, I'm not aware of that being the case."

Before the findings of OCR and the Department of Justice are completed and released, though, officials say they have some idea of some "first steps" that might be taken by the district to create more unity and repair some of the racial divide in the county.

"I would like to see parents and community more involved in our schools, volunteering and helping to mentor our children," Taylor said. "Through that process, I think their perception of our schools, and what we're trying to accomplish, would change because they'll see what our administration and teachers are doing to provide for our students.

"It's hard to change perception. The only way we can do that is continually provide the data and the facts to offset any misperceptions that are out there. We certainly are not happy with the misinformation and I guess the negative perceptions that have been talked about and communicated."

Pridgen would advocate for more involvement as a mentor, both by the public sector and business people. Ideally, parents are there for their children, but that is not always the case and there is always more that can be done.

"Those children need help with homework (and other things)," he said. "Even if it's just an hour after school, an hour here or there, that can make a tremendous difference."

Most assuredly, the men agreed, if there are problems, they need to be brought to light. But at the end of the day, they said, it's all about putting children first.

"We certainly have a big responsibility because our jobs are certainly to educate the children who attend our public schools and when they graduate from high school, have them ready to go to college, into the military or into the workforce," Taylor said. "We need some help. We need parental involvement and community support."

Positive actions, as opposed to negative comments, would go a long way toward improving the image of the school system, he said. It might even turn the tide of what has been going on, and change the public perception.

"Our perception is that the majority of parents are very pleased with our schools," said Taylor, who noted that whenever surveys have been distributed, the majority have been favorable.

"We have to continue to keep those parents happy but at the same time, those parents that are not happy, we have to work to show them that we're trying to educate their children, return them safely home and help them graduate."