When it comes to schools and kids, progress might actually just involve a unified push from everyone in a community – no matter how hard it looks.
That’s the view of Joyce Parker, an energetic and passionate resident of Greenville, Mississippi. She is the director of Citizens for a Better Greenville (CBG), an organization that works with some of the lowest wealth communities in the city of about 38,000 residents.
She and the families with whom she works engage residents to participate in community-building programs, especially for youth, advocate for quality education and become empowered in civic affairs. She has a deep dedication to improving education for African Americans.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama proclaimed May 5 to 11 as “National Charter Schools Week,” giving a nod to what many see as educational flexibility and “widening the circle of opportunity for students who need it most.”
Parker and other Greenville residents are moving forward on a grassroots educational plan of their own.
They’ve dubbed it a “Missing in Action” campaign, which would involve social workers, church members, parents, teachers, residents, police and truant officers, city employees and school district administrators to make sure the estimated 6,500 public school students in Greenville receive the support they need.
The graduation rate in Greenville, she says, is 66 percent. In 2011, in this agricultural community, the average income for a person was about $17,200, according to the Census Bureau.
For Parker, this concerted community approach is a better alternative than starting a charter school – which is supported by public money and allowed under Mississippi state law — but can only accommodate a portion of the public school students.
While there are those who support charter schools, Parker asks a straightforward question: What about the students who don’t go to a charter school?
Equal Voice News talked with her about schools and Greenville. This interview was edited.
Q: For people not familiar with Citizens for a Better Greenville and the city, could you talk about both?
We’re a community-based organization and we’re located in Greenville, Mississippi, which is in the heart of the Delta. We are the largest community in the Delta with about 38,000 people. It’s flatland. It’s agricultural in nature. It’s rural to a degree. We’re on the Mississippi River.
Q: What are the schools like in Greenville and the Delta area?
We have public schools here but we have about four private schools in our community. Most of our school districts in the Delta area are very small. Greenville is the largest. We have about 6,500 students. A majority of the students in the districts are African American. In Greenville, the graduation rate is 66 percent.
Q: What is your view on charter schools, especially in Greenville?
I oppose charter schools in the Greenville district. It’s a small district, compared to New York and Chicago. In Greenville, we have one high school with about 1,500 students. In our elementary schools, we might have 300 to 400 students per school. If the premise is that you want to get a plan that works, why not implement it in all the schools, as compared to taking one school out? It should be in every school. What happens to the other students?
Q: Elaborate on your concerns.
Charter schools will have first dibs on the district budget. You have school districts that are already underfunded. Then, you are going to make schools fight over that money. If you don’t have a holistic plan for the entire district, then what will happen? Who will go to that school? What will be the impact on the district, especially if it’s a failing district? Usually, you hear about “choice.” That’s a buzzword. With charter schools, it brings back the idea of separate but not equal into communities.
Q: It sounds like you’re concerned that public schools could become weaker.
What might happen is the morale that grows out of not having total buy-in will really hinder the effectiveness of public education in our community. Then, the community is weaker. At the heart of it is, parents are being blamed as why public schools are failing. Teachers are being blamed for public schools that are failing. But at the end of the day, it is the decision makers who should be blamed. They are making the decisions.
Q: What is a solution to improve public schools?
We have a new school district administration in Greenville, and we are seeing them actively look at the data and identify what the problems are. A part of that has been to actively look at reducing suspensions. Teachers must teach but students must be in the classroom. Not only were children not in the school but they were chronically absent. What our organization is doing, we’re talking about a “Missing in Action” plan.
Q: Talk more about that.
How do we keep students in school? We have students who have missed 10 or more days of school. These are chronic absentees. Some students are in a single parent home. That parent might work at night, get home and fall asleep and not get them to school. In the South, some kids move in with grandparents and the teens are the caregivers and are not being made to go to school. And you have homelessness. We have high rates of unemployment. People might only stay in the city for three months. Our schools are failing because of chronic absenteeism. Give us a chance to fix it. Don’t say, “Let’s make a charter school.”
Q: How would “Missing in Action” work?
This has to do with leadership. When we’re talking about the “Missing in Action” campaign, we’re not only talking about our students and parents but everyone who is supposed to support schools. That goes to the chronic absenteeism that we have. We’re looking at reducing the number of suspensions and to call on our school officers and city government officials who have reinforced our curfew law. Instead of arresting kids, take them to the alternative school. We’re talking about social workers in schools. We’re talking about getting help from the truant officers. We’re saying to churches, “If you know someone who is working all night, then why not mentor that family?” We’ll partner with you.
Q: What would you say to President Obama about charter schools?
I would say, “You’ve got to stop changing the game in our communities.” And it might seem like we’re catching up, then the game or the rules are changed. The expectations have to be there that our communities have to be healthy communities, as compared to communities that someone else wants them to be.
Q: Why are you so committed to helping people?
This is a calling in my life. I don’t want to see anyone lost. I don’t believe anyone has to be lost.
(Brad Wong is assistant news editor for Equal Voice News, where his post first appeared. Republished with permission.)