Board of Education hears public input at strategic planning sessions
More diversity in administration and better opportunities for students were the main items of feedback at last Thursday’s public meeting to receive citizen input on its five year strategic planning process. About 20 residents attended the meeting at the Southeast Georgia Regional Agriculture Center in Blackshear. A similar meeting at Eagle Station in Patterson two weeks ago was attended by about 20 people, but all of them were connected to the meeting in some way. No county residents not connected to the session attended and it did not generate any feedback for the board.
The strategic plan is required by the state and covers five year periods. The plan identifies future goals and areas of emphasis as well as determining the overall direction of the school system.
School superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith gave a power point presentation offering an overview of the schools, their test scores, enrollment and demographic make-up and the county’s poverty levels.
The statistics showed enrollment of about 3,600 with a little over 60 percent eligible for free and reduced meals. Demographic make up is 78 percent white, with Hispanics second at nine percent and African Americans third at eight percent. The remaining five percent of students are mixed race, Asian or Pacific Islander. Smith complimented students and staff on test results showing local students outperformed their peers across the state in every category every year for the last five years in the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI). The CCRPI also rated local schools as safe and as financially well managed.
Smith also said, however, that Pierce County’s students shouldn’t be solely judged on CCRPI scores.
“We need to emphasize showing up on time and getting things done,” he said.
Smith also pointed out more than half of local teachers have master’s, education specialist’s or doctoral degrees.
“We basically want to determine who we are, where we are now and where do we want to go,” Smith said.
He emphasized Pierce County Schools’ motto: “Excellence is the Standard” and the system’s goal that Pierce County graduates will be “creative problem solvers in a competitive global environment.”
Smith also expressed his excitement over the opening of the new Pierce County High School later this year.
“I think I speak for everybody when I say: I can’t wait!,” he said.
In opening up the meeting for discussion, Smith asked those in attendance to provide feedback on three questions: What are we doing well?, What are we not doing well? and What are we not doing that we need to start doing?
Smith explained the system would make available a survey through June 30. He said the plan would then be prepared and finalized by August.
Tyrone Harris asked about efforts to improve diversity in the school system by hiring more minorities in general and appointing minority administrators.
“We have a school system which is 22 percent minority and there is not a single person who looks like me among any of the school building administrators,” he said. “There are few minority teachers anywhere in the system.”
Harris pointed out his daughter recently graduated with a teaching degree and no effort was made to recruit her to come back home to Pierce County to teach.
Harris pointed out all of the football coaches are white except for him.
The Rev. Morris Pate also talked about the lack of diversity in the school system and the lack of community involvement.
“There is a lack of engagement with the community,” he said. “Blackshear Elementary had a Black History Month program in February and our community knew nothing about it.”
Pate said he remembered a time when board members, administrators and coaches were visible in the community. He used first district board member Jack Saussy as an example.
“I don’t mean this as any reflection on you, but I doubt many people know you are a school board member,” he said. “There was a time when we sat down and talked with one another and got to know one another and not just at the ball game or at a board meeting.”
Pastor Samuel Sellers III said that the work environment for minority employees is unfair.
“I have (minority) educators who have quit Pierce County Schools because they were mistreated or treated unfairly,” he said.
Board chairperson Linda Zechmann and Saussy urged those present to come to the superintendent with their complaints of specific incidents and with their overall concerns of lack of diversity.
“Dr. Smith has an open door policy. He is very easy to talk to,” said Saussy.
“We need you to come and talk to the superintendent,” said Zechmann.
Smith offered to meet any time and any where.
“If I don’t know about (the problems), I can’t do anything about it,” Dr. Smith said.
As far as the overall issue of lack of diversity, the superintendent said he was open to suggestions on what can be done to improve the system’s record of minority hiring.
“I can’t speak about the past, because I’ve only been here about two years,” he said. “What I can try to do is address it now and in the future.”
Smith floated the idea of appointing a committee to study the diversity issue in the school system.
Director of Student Achievement Lanna Denison said it is hard to recruit minorities. She had been recruiting with Dr. Anita Harris, director of special programs/testing coordinator for the system. Harris and Yvette Newton are two minorities in administrative positions with the system.
“We can’t offer them signing bonuses like other systems do,” she said. “It’s hard to even get them to talk to us — much less apply with us.”
Millie Price, an instructional coach in neighboring Ware County, suggested the school system emphasize and develop its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) programs to improve minority participation.
“We don’t need to limit our students. We need to teach and encourage females to go into engineering and males to go into nursing. We need to encourage minorities to succeed,” she said.
Price encouraged the school system to have minority business owners to come in and talk to students.
Parent Kelly Raulerson decried what she termed a lack of opportunities for students — specifically in Pierce County’s biggest industry — agriculture.
“More emphasis needs to be placed on the system’s agriculture program,” she said. “It is drying up. Our students need to be exposed to aquaculture and other diversified opportunities.”
Dr. Smith countered by pointing out the agriculture program is growing and a second ag teacher has been added at the high school and a new ag program has been started at the middle school.
Raulerson then criticized the lack of communication and engagement of the school system with parents and the public. Pate agreed with Raulerson’s observation.
Smith and Denison pointed out the system and each school have websites and a Facebook page, the system has an “all call” feature to alert parents and all school and board activities are advertised in or covered by The Blackshear Times.
Raulerson said not everyone reads the paper or is connected to social media.
“The board needs something to keep us informed,” she said.
Resident Roy Gilleon said he was in agreement with the concerns on minority hiring, but did not agree at all about the board’s lack of communication.
“These folks do all they can to keep you informed about what is going on in our schools. There are ways for you to find out. If you are not connected with what is going on in the school system, it is because you choose not to be,” he said.
Prior to Raulerson’s remarks, efforts to improve student preparation were discussed by board members at the earlier input session in Patterson.
Zechmann asked that the schools partner with local businesses to gear the system’s curriculum toward local industries.
“We have heard and dealt with it before, especially with agriculture and construction,” she said. “We want to have career alignment with what we are teaching.”
Discussions also centered around creating more opportunities locally for a mentoring program where community business professionals give students on-the-job training.
Zechmann said she is aware such training already exists, but would like to see it improved.
“I wish we could beef it up some,” she said.
Saussy agreed with the need to expand class offerings.
“It has been said that you learn reading, writing and arithmetic. In the days we are living in, if that’s all we teach them, we have done our students a disservice,” he said. “They have got to be able to compete out in the world.”
Special education opportunities were also discussed in terms of providing opportunities and skills to special needs students.
Assistant superintendent LeVance Gay asked that life skills be emphasized, using as an example teaching students how to balance a check book and do basic financial transactions.
Third district board member Chip Griner said he wanted the emphasis locally to be on more than test scores.
“We want our students to be able to go and do anything they want to, but we also want some of them to come back to Pierce County and be able to work here,” he said.
Smith said he wanted the system to not rest on its laurels.
“We have a high achieving system, but I don’t want us to be content with that. I don’t want us to be ordinary in anything. You are either getting better or you are getting worse.”
Second district board member Mitch Hall called for a re-focus on faith, morals and character.
“The book that we need to be teaching covers everything between Genesis and Revelation,” he said.
Hall said he envisioned organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) having more influence in the schools.
One idea from the discussions is to have a focus group made up of current and past graduates in an “exit interview”. The interview’s focus would ask the three question posed earlier in the meeting: What are we doing well?, What are we not doing well? and What are we not doing that we need to start doing?
As the meeting closed, Dr. Smith informed those present about a public survey the school system is conducting as part of the strategic planning process. (See related graphic.) The surveys, which are anonymous, will be available online through the end of June. The survey is available at www.owledu.com/pierce.
Zechmann asked that the survey be distributed as widely as possible in the community including among the “elderly, impoverished and Hispanic” communities.
Citizens are encouraged to take a few moments to complete an anonymous 23-question, 10-15 minute, survey to give feedback to the school system. The survey will be used to help formulate the strategic plan.
The survey is hosted by TINA software and can be accessed by logging on to www.owledu.com/pierce.
User name for Pierce County participants is COMMUNITY and the password is: MEMBER. Once those two items are entered then press the log on button. The Pierce County survey will then appear on screen.
To complete the survey, simply click on the Take Survey button and proceed answering the questions as appropriate.
When finished answering the survey questions, participants must click on the save button at the bottom of the screen. After saving, please press the exit button to log out and record your survey answers.