Focus Group Expresses Praise for Teachers, Frustration with Political Interference

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.

Focus Group attendees (l-r) Gina Hauser, Suzanne Donner, Shenandoah University students Eugene Edwards and Chris Christensen, Lee Coffelt, Paul Jones

Focus Group attendees (l-r) Gina Hauser, Suzanne Donner, Shenandoah University students Eugene Edwards and Chris Christensen, Lee Coffelt, Paul Jones

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.”

Focus Group attendees (l - r) Gina Hauser and Suzanne Donner

Focus Group attendees (l - r) Gina Hauser and Suzanne Donner

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.


  1. Clarke parent says:

    It is unfortunate that this meeting did not have better attendance. I understand that at least some of the attendees were specifically asked to come by school officials. The objective of the SU students was to gauge the mood of Clarke County residents on school issues, but with invited attendees, this form of statistical experiment design would certainly skew the results.

    Statements attributed to Mr. Jones implied that the parents who are objecting to the two books somehow bypassed the teachers and Principal and, instead, trotted off to complain to the Superintendent and/or the School Board. On the contrary, each of the parent objections began at the teacher level for a building review. One parent met with the teacher three times in person, two times by phone, and then was denied a meeting with the Principal. Only after the parents’ written requests for a formal Instructional Materials Committee review were ignored, did the parents go public to the School Board meetings to complain about the graphic content of the books and the obvious flaws in the appeal process.

    I agree with Mr. Jones that problems such as the book controversy should be resolved by school staff. Lest we not forget, however, it was school staff that chose “The Color Purple” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the first place. I would challenge any of those staff members to stand up at a School Board meeting, read the book passages that the parents are objecting to, and put hand on heart and say “I’m proud of these books”.

    • I agree. Last year I had a concern over a book that disturbed my daughter in reading. The response from the teacher was just to have me read the book also. Which I had and I would have gone further with it by speaking with the principal(who I believe would have been understanding in the matter) but my daughter was afraid of retaliatory actions from her teacher so I didn’t pursue it any further. It is very sad that our children have to be educated in such an atmoosphere of fear( and we just thought the bullies were other students). I realize now why so many parents choose to homeschool. Unfortunately, I don’t have the gifts, abilities and talents to choose this option nor the means to afford a private education either.

      • Jim Gibson says:

        OK…so your daughter expressed a fear of retaliation from he teacher, and you use that to paint the entire school with that brush? I think that you would find that the teachers and staff at CCHS are, on the whole, quite the opposite of fear-instilling. My stepchildren are completing their education there, and they have never had such an experience as you describe.

        Part of the issue remains that “all teachers” are accused of creating “such an environment of fear”, and this introduces cynicism, mistrust, and animosity where none needed to be introduced. Constructive dialogue, then, falls by the wayside. Could the parents have handled thigns better? Perhaps. Could the school staff and administrators? Sure. Looking back, one can find a host of things, on all sides, that could have (or should have) been handled better. The critical thing is for ALL vested parties move forward with the goal of working together to make CCPS the best it can be.

        Clear communication, free from inuendo and ad hominem digs, is what fosters trust and a collegial atmosphere. That’s what we need.

      • nancy martin says:

        Perhaps your daughter was trying to talk to you about stuff, brought up by literature or just be growing older. It’s a parenting moment – one in which you have the precious ear and she has yours. Listen.

      • That is the wierdest thing I have ever read. You don’t like what professionals, paid by your tax money, are teaching your kids but feel like you cannot do a better job?

  2. Jim Gibson says:

    Yes, communication needs to be improved. However, parents need to understand that there are policies and procedures in place (and school administrators need to do a better job of informing them of such), and let the procedures work as they are designed. Leapfrogging the school administrators and going right to SB members short-circuits this process.

    • Clarke parent says:

      No parent who has currently lodged an objection to these books has been “leapfrogging the school administrators”. It was only after the objections were dismissed at the building level, that parents moved on to the next level and contacted central office administration. Only after the objections were ignored at this level, did the parents make public objections at the School Board meeting. Policy does not trump parental rights or the Code of Virginia.

      This whole sequence of events only shows the faults and inconsistencies of the current policy where the written request for reconsideration of a book does not even match the policy. I understand that the Policy Committee is now reviewing the policy and forms to ensure equitable treatment throughout the appeal process, and thus prevent summary dismissal of the objection at the building level.

      • Jim Gibson says:

        And, indeed, that prevention of “summary dismissal” is a good thing. If school staff failed to follow the policy, then the frustration is warranted.

        The CCPS Policy Manual is based on the Code of Virginia, best practices in the field of education, pertinent legal precedents, and the like. It is the failure to abide by the policies in place that caused the uproar. The loaded zingers and angry accusations of “all teachers” lobbed by some of the parents at the heart of the matter that further eroded the comity and trust. Let us all hope that, as we move forward, we all can put aside the bitterness and mistrust and cool-headedly discuss matters without hurling insults or suggesting that a group is in some way evil or not moral.

    • So you are suggesting that when the parents have exhausted all their options they should just lie down and except the results when they aren’t acceptable to them?

      • Jim Gibson says:

        What I am suggesting is that in the future, if a materials review committee is formed under the newly-revised policy and procedure rules, and the book then in question is supported at every level, the parent making the complaint should consider the matter resolved. There is, and has been, an “opt out” caveat.

  3. Tony Parrott says:

    This is interesting. A focus group has a meeting to better understand how to communicate with parents and the overall community. The first comment I see is about attendance and innuendo that it was a set up; let’s talk about book banning again. Here is my absolute last comment on book banning. It’s not about the books; it’s about my rights as a parent vs. your right as a parent. Don’t tread on me and I won’t tread on you. Furthermore if my child feared retribution from a teacher because of ANYTHING all I can say is that would be one hell of a parent teacher conference but I don’t foresee that happening because of book selection as a process is in place that I can work with.

    Now I was at the focus group and can tell you what was discussed. How was I invited? Not sure but I was on an “undisclosed recipients” email and assume other parents were also invited. Maybe I was invited because I’m involved and will generally show up for any meeting on our schools or my good looks and charm, right, but I’ve digressed. Dr. Murphy set the stage talking about better communicating with the public. We were split into two groups and the SU students took over by asking specific questioning about how to better communicate and the means in which the schools communicates with the public. We equally talked about parent communication and the part of the community that doesn’t have kids in the school system (every tax payer is a stake holder) and what could be improved. We talked about specifics like email and the new system that calls you (can’t recall the name) and that fact that the new system can be developed to do a lot more. Like remind people there is a focus group meeting on communication. We also talked about how too many times people only focus on the negative; kind of like watching NASCAR for the wrecks. (Trust me Clarke has had a lot of them over the years) I felt the meeting was a good first step and we had some great ideas. Like focusing on the good: FFA, DECA, robotics team, sports, volunteer work and much much more.

    Here is a parting thought, look at the articles under education and check out the comments. “Local Students Deliver Rainbow Performance” ONE COMMENT, this article eight. It’s easy to focus on the negative but so much more rewarding to celebrate in the success of our Clarke County Students. To me that was the focus of this group.

    • Am frightened. After our wee,sad community paper bellied up, I have no access to CCPS news. Can’t trust the Winchester Star to do more than report movie times. So, for the the media disenfranchised, how do we keep in touch and be responsible advotes for our kids? The uninformed is uninvolved.

      • Tony Parrott says:

        This online paper seems to be doing a good job.
        But… for people who want to get involved, attend a School Board meeting or better yet a sub-committee meeting. PTO’s and boosters are also good ways to get involved. The problem I find is most people only talk about being involved; they never actually get involved.

  4. In retrospect of my previous comments and the situation, I do think the teachers overall try to do a good job of teaching. I had moved from an educational enviroment that was more collabortive and communication was effective.So it was just a very disheartening and frustrating experience to have requested that my daughter be allowed to choose another book and essentially was dismissed about it. She wasn’t afraid of any “physical retribution” just that her grades would be modified negatively if she pursued it any further. I’ve always encouraged a love of learning for my kids and part of that is to be “true to yourself”. I have four college educated children already and they are happy to have the opportunities this affords them. I would just like to be able to see this happen for the rest of my children. If they become discouraged at school it becomes less likely. I agree that it is better to be positive whenever possible. The Dramatic Reading Event was wonderful. I had a child partipate in this. I think it would have been more wonderful to have seen Arican American children participate also. Any suggestions on how this could be accomplished?

    • Jim Gibson says:

      We all can get caught up in the zeal of things, and wanting to make things better. When the air get so polarized, it is sometimes hard to cut through the static.

      As for the Dramatic Reading Event, your question is a good one but I don’t know that it has an easy answer. My hunch is that there are those in that demographic who would do well in it, but either don’t want to participate or aren’t encouraged to do so. Requiring someone to participate, as part of a class assignment, would get numbers up, but would they do so willingly? I don’t know.

      THe other part of it is statistics. If you look at CCPS’ student population, it is 92% or so Caucasian, reflectiong the demographics of the county proper. Thus, there are not as many minority students in the schools. It will be interesting to see some great suggestions come forward.

  5. Undisclosed parent says:

    This is fascinating to me. Our own school board cannot come up with ways to better communicate? Good school boards will work collaboratively to accomplish goals; this one is so polarized that nothing can competently be solved. It seems that they keep making committees of citizens to do their work. Tony, the book banning issue is ridiculous, I agree. Our teachers are qualified to choose materials that are on a specific list. Clarke County has a large number of IB classes; those are college level and in that case, one must be prepared to take on college level reading and issues. This is 2010- if you think kids aren’t aware of the issues brought about by The Color Purple or The Handmaid’s Tale, you are living in a vacuum. These types of reading allow kids to see solutions to problems, to realize that good will overcome evil, and to become educated on things that may be uncomfortable. That is what good literature does. Tony I hope you continue to fight for the students; I hope to see your name on the ballot next time too.

    • Bruce Goad says:

      I find it difficult to classify the Handmaid’s Tale as good literature for 16-17 year old children. Although our children are exposed to more issues and images than ever in this information age that we live in, some material is better suited to an older more mature audience. Many parents do not want their 16 and 17 year old children discussing in depth, material that has so many vulgar, obscene, and disturbing images and language. I understand that the language can be so offensive and uncomfortable, that it cannot be read out loud in a public school board meeting. Isn’t it ironic that if students repeated some of the same language in this book in our school hallways, they would get in trouble. While some may feel the book has a redeeming story that offsets the obscene language and images, many of us feel this book could do more harm than good. I believe this book crosses a line. I am not suggesting to ban the book. Leave it in the school library. But I know there are many other college level books that could have been picked, that would not have been as controversial, and still be approved by the IB program.
      Overall I am happy with the job the school board, faculty, and administration do. One thing we all agree on, is we want what is best for the kids. I’m glad this discussion is being held and I hope it leads to better communication, more involvement by parents, and the best choices for the students.

      • Doug Landry says:

        You think high school kids don’t use such language in the halls of CCHS? In their text messages or IM posts? Really? Do these parents police the movies, music downloads, YouTube videos, TV shows, and other media their kids have access to through their web-capable phones and other sources as tightly as they have blasted the CCHS English Department over these two books?

  6. Am I missing something? If there’s an opt-out policy in place, doesn’t that provide the opportunity for parents/students to decide not to read a particular selection?

    Assuming that such a policy exists, then what exactly is the need for lobbying or petitioning the school board to have books removed from a course offering – unless the real goal is to apply their standards of approval to literature that others may wish to read?

  7. Doug Landry says:

    Well said, Gonzo! It is one thing for parents to stand up to “the man” and look out for their own kids. I’ll support that all day long. It’s another thing, though, for that group to act as if they’ve been deputized to speak for me, or any other parents, or promote their sensibilities as the only true ones.

    I’m glad this dialogue has started, too, because we really need to move forward. The administration should follow the procedure that’s there; that’s a basic thing, really. Parents should accept the decision of those empowered to make the decision, provided sound judgment was used. Again, that’s a basic thing.