A cross-section of Clarke County citizens gathered on Thursday evening to participate in a focus group session designed to improve communications between the school administrators and the public. Participants voiced frustration with the informal political processes that are influencing the school system and implored the School Board to take a more professional approach in its leadership style.
Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy convened the meeting as a way of gaining community education stakeholder’s perspective on how the school system is perceived. “Differences of opinion are helpful, but often hard to get.” Murphy said.
“Focus group sessions” often use an outside moderator who encourages participants to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and ideas on certain subject. In Thursday night’s case, students from Shenandoah University’s business communications program moderated discussion sessions on behalf of Clarke County Public Schools.
Dr. Murphy’s wish for soliciting public opinion was not denied.
Gina Hauser, the parent of a 2008 CCHS graduate as well as a current 6th grader, voiced her frustration with the negative impacts caused by so many groups working at cross purposes over education. “We have too much politics between parents, the School Board, and the Board of Supervisors. It’s a mess! The constant re-hashing keeps us from getting anywhere.” Hauser said that the current situation really bothers her. “We need a team effort here,” she said.
Several participants used the current book controversy to express their concerns about how community members communicate and believe that the current controversy caused over inclusion of “The Color Purple” and the “Handmaid’s Tale” in an International Baccalaureate English class could have been avoided had the School Board allowed its administrative processes to work. Jane Roberts, a former special education teacher and mother of two Clarke County students, said that the book controversy was, in part, an example of ineffective communication. “Teacher – parent communication has to be proactive,” Roberts said. Suzanne Donner, a mother with three Clarke students concurred, “Discussion can take you from where you are to some place better.”
While better communication may have helped to defuse the current book dilemma, the group also said that school leadership practices must change if similar issues are to be avoided in the future. “What communication options does a parent have to resolve a problem here in Clarke County?” Lee Coffelt posed to the group. “One parent may call the School Board Chairman, but another parent may call the principal. How do we inform parents about the way to solve problems?”
Paul Jones, a former CCPS principal answered Cofffelt’s question. “You can’t tell the boss to get back over the line,” Jones said referring to direct involvement by CC School Board members in the book review process. Jones, a professional educator and former Clarke County Public Schools principal, believes that the School Board must rely more on its school staff and policies to solve problems. “When parents have concerns they should come forward as individuals and discuss the issues with the building principal and teacher. Instead, people call school board members and the superintendent. That’s not the way to solve our problems.” Suzanne Donner also supports promoting communications within the school community, “CCPS needs to do more to get people involved so that we don’t have these kinds of ‘circus issue’ responses.”
The group voiced strong concerns that the overall handling of the book controversy has unfairly placed Clarke’s teaching staff in the public cross-hairs. “Handling controversies in this manner causes our professors and administrators to struggle,” said Lee Coffelt.
While frustration levels with negative politics and poor leadership were strong, participants still expressed positive visions about the future of Clarke education. Lee Coffelt wants Clarke to continue to support its strong agricultural education and strengthen its vocational programs. “We need to remember the there are a lot of kids in Clarke County who are geared more toward vocational occupations. In some ways we have neglected these kids in our effort to serve the talented and gifted students. I hope that can change.”
Paul Jones offered his belief that Clarke students can benefit from a greater emphasis on diversity. “Recognition of cultural diversity teaches people that they are more alike than different. People don’t realize how much alike that they really are. Teaching only from a dominant culture perspective implies that the dominant culture is the ‘right’ culture,” Jones said.
Overall, the focus group delivered strong support and praise for the quality of education being delivered by Clarke educators in spite of funding and leadership problems. Equally strong concern was expressed for preventing future decisions that threaten the quality of Clarke’s education program. Whether or not Thursday night’s focus group opinions reflect a broader public sentiment is anyone’s guess.