OUR VIEW: Become part of solution for Meridian schools

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Terrence Davis and others listen during a community meeting in Meridian High School's auditorium Tuesday night.

How do you engage a community that doesn’t wish to be engaged?

Over the last few weeks the Meridian Public School District has conducted a series of meetings with various “stakeholders” in the district – students, district leaders, teachers and staff, faith-based leaders, government leaders, community leaders, parents and the general public.

We criticized the district last week for restrictions it placed on reporting the Oct. 25 public meeting. We applaud the district for lifting those restrictions for the Tuesday, Oct. 30 meeting, which was welcoming to all attending. Thank you.

We walked away with a greater empathy for the challenges faced by the Meridian Public School District as it works to address its F rating in the most recent assessment by the Mississippi Department of Education.

Around 20 thoughtful people attended Tuesday night’s public session, following a smilier session Oct. 25 that drew around 30 people. Because the earlier meetings were closed, we don’t know the number of people who attended those.

We do think, however, that of a city of around 40,000 residents, more than 50 people should want to make it a priority to hear about the challenges faced by the public school district, assets that can be used to overcome those challenges and what they might do to help.

Representatives of Impact Education Group, the consulting group from Hattiesburg hired by the district to help address its challenges, led attendees through an exercise discussing strengths and challenges and identifying priorities.

The public offered strengths such as: strong leadership; a record of producing athletes, principals, doctors and leaders; tradition; adequate resources; community partners; responsiveness to parents; caring parents; teacher development; its JROTC program; the Ross Collins Career and Technical Center; arts integration; motivated students; and responsiveness to problems.

Stated challenges included: lack of parent involvement; lack of classroom control; overcoming past problems; recruitment and retention of qualified teachers; disrespectful students; low teacher salaries; loss of state aid; aging facilities; emphasis on testing; demands of the Justice Department Consent Decree put in place to correct the “school-to-prison pipeline;” and meeting demands of the state standards.

You may agree or disagree with those sentiments or take note of some of the contradictions, but that means little if you don’t participate in the discussion and, more importantly, the solution.

We’ve noted earlier this community’s propensity for dwelling on the negative, staying home and taking shots through social media rather than becoming active and making this a better place. The more openness among leaders, the more participation by all, the better we’ll be.

One mother mentioned her child felt looked down upon by people who lived in the Lauderdale County School District. That’s not an unusual experience. For sale signs linger on city lawns and flight to the county is encouraged.

That is a shame.

Struggles with the grading system aside, we have reported frequently about the good things happening in Meridian Schools, including innovations by new leaders to improve grades; programs to engage parents; volunteers reading in the schools; Golden Apple teachers of the month; the Any Given Child Initiative; success stories of the music, arts and athletic programs; and the list goes on.

Yes, there are disruptive students who need to be addressed before they chase more good teachers away, but there are tenfold more bright and talented students we’ve encountered who are polite, respectful, helpful and engaging.

Facilitators Tuesday night asked the public to identify the component of the school’s strategic plan that was most critical to address. The consensus landed on developing highly effective personnel and engaging the community as top priorities.

We wouldn’t disagree, especially on community engagement.

An F rating should be considered a call for help that we all should answer.

It may seem appropriate to point fingers of blame for the district’s failings at its leadership or staff. That goes with the territory. But an apathetic and uninvolved public can share part of that responsibility.

The district leadership has done the right thing by involving many different groups in working toward a solution. We encourage the district to continue to involve the public and remain open.

We ask district residents to answer that call for help – participate in a survey, visit a school, attend a board meeting, listen to a concert, watch a play or a game, write a note, volunteer your time, donate your money.

Care enough to become involved and make a difference.

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