Frustration, anger – but also hope for Allendale schools
By Dan O’Mara
The South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church
At the “Listening Post” event – hosted Feb. 11 by the Fellowship of South Carolina Bishops’ Public Education Initiative – parents, educators and local residents told bishops and other church leaders about their frustration, anger and disappointment at the state of their school system, which the state Department of Education took control of in June 2018.
Almost person-for-person, however, they also delivered a message of hope, confidence in the future and support for local schools, teachers, administrators and – most of all – for the children themselves.
“No matter where I go, I defend Allendale,” said Valaree Smith, who represents Allendale and four other counties on the State Board of Education. “We’ve got to love where we live, and don’t let anybody talk about our house.
“When you have that passion for your community, and start valuing education again, and start teaching your children to value education – that’s when change takes place.”
“It’s going to take all of us working together – legislators, teachers, administrators, parents and students – to make the education experience what it should be. Students can’t speak for themselves, so we have to advocate for them.”
The bishops collectively have been advocating for public education since April 2014, when they issued a joint pastoral letter pledging “our commitment to support the full flourishing of public education in South Carolina.” They expressed concern after the state Supreme Court in November 2017 dismissed a landmark school equity lawsuit, filed in 1993 to force the General Assembly to improve educational opportunities in the state’s poorest public schools.
What Allendale said
Over nearly two hours during the “Listening Post,” the bishops posed five questions to the parents and others in attendance. Here is a summary of what they heard in reply:
What are the challenges and concerns around public education facing the Allendale community?
- Security issues at some schools, including a lack of bus monitors and the lack of a “buzzer system” at Fairfax Elementary to control access to the school building.
- The stigma that Allendale teachers cannot teach, that Allendale students are not capable of learning.
- A disconnect between schools and communities, which are not always working together.
- The perception that parents do not have input into decisions being made about their children’s education.
- Many of the problems faced in classrooms start outside the schools, because some parents do not value or support their children’s education, or children are exposed to “toxic parts” of the community.
- Disciplinary issues, including a lack of respect for teachers among some students and bullying.
What are the opportunities and hopes for the future for Allendale?
- The influence of local churches and pastors, who share hope in Jesus Christ as the answer to many of the cultural issues that often start at home and make their way into schools.
- Parents who teach their children to be obedient and talk to them about their future, about getting an education, about making a living.
- Volunteer opportunities abound in Allendale County schools, an opportunity to bring the community into the classroom and have a direct, positive impact on students.
- Parents, teachers and others in the community should take the time to really listen to young people, to understand what they are going through in school and in life.
- Students need to be encouraged, and their confidence and self-esteem need to be lifted.
What are some significant next steps we could take?
- Parents, educators and other local residents should talk with their elected officials at the local and state levels and hold them accountable for the decisions they make.
- Establish a community center, a place where children and youth can go and “just be kids.” Ideally, one for older youth and another for younger children.
- Invite state lawmakers to Allendale to discuss pending education legislation.
- Provide more money to recruit more teachers to the area and to boost their pay.
- Include adult education, which “picks people up when they fall through the cracks,” in advocacy efforts to make sure it is funded properly.
How can our religious communities be more proactive with the needs of our children and their education?
- Create engineering labs in the community – possibly at local churches – and in schools to expose children to technology early.
- Local churches can offer learning opportunities centered on parenting and the value of education, and provide incentives to students who perform well in school.
- Members of the community can visit schools and make themselves available to students – especially those who have experienced trauma – to talk about issues they might not feel comfortable sharing with a teacher or a school counselor.
- Give students a way to voice their opinions about what’s going on with them and their education.
How will we report back to the people of Allendale on our conversation with legislators during the upcoming Public Education Advocacy Days?
- Schedule a follow-up meeting to share with the community what was learned or accomplished during the Advocacy Days, with a chance for local residents to respond.
- Send a report about what was learned or accomplished during the Advocacy Days to those in attendance who shared their email addresses.
- Provide an assessment and specific suggestions from the South Carolina Bishops’ Public Education Initiative regarding what churches and their leaders can do in their communities to make an impact on local schools and their students.
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ELCA South Carolina Synod
1003 Richland Street
Columbia, SC 29201