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Public schools critical to communities

While various elections come and go, the issue of public education remains a hot topic in local communities. From a pragmatic standpoint, employers, civic leaders and economic developers repeatedly stress the importance of a strong public education system in the creation and retention of jobs. From a quality-of-life perspective, vibrant public school systems can be a unifying force in effecting mutual understanding and cooperation among individuals of diverse backgrounds.

My husband and I are both products of public schools, and as parents, we have supported public education in our local community in a variety of ways. For nearly a decade, I served on the board of Tupelo’s Association for Excellence in Education, with two years as president.

I appreciate the importance of strong public schools in local communities, but I also recognize that children are individuals and have their own special learning needs.

Finding the best fit

As advocates for their children, parents have every right to choose the educational environment that best suits their needs. In some instances, this setting is a public school. In others, it’s a private school or a home-school environment.

At times, I find it ironic that some of the same individuals who tout public school attributes, such as tolerance, tend to stereotype the motives of parents who choose a private-school or home-school experience.

While parents must make informed decisions regarding the best match for their children’s educational needs, it is a fact that public schools are critical components of local communities. Business and industrial recruits frequently state that the quality of a community’s public education system is a key indicator of a community’s viability. As a parent, I feel fortunate to live in a region with a long-standing tradition of public-school support. But I also recognize that it’s important to plan for the future. Strong public school systems cannot rest on past achievements. They must be willing to improve themselves in an effort to move forward. Support for public education is a two-way street. The contract goes both ways.

As a community resident, I feel a commitment to support the public schools through my time, resources and talents. But simultaneously, the schools have a commitment to students, parents and the broader community. In no particular order, here are some of the more significant issues that resonate with many of my contemporaries as they weigh their support for public schools.

A few expectations

First, parents expect a secure school environment. Administrators need to appreciate the awesome responsibility that they share with families every day in providing a safe environment for children of all ages. Bullying or intimidation at any level by students or teachers/administrators should be met with a zero-tolerance policy of remediation. Visitors should have a reason for appearing on school property and should be properly identified. Sufficient planning for transportation and supervision should be made for all field trips and athletic trips. Too often, school administrators tout policies, but fail to enforce them. A written safety policy means nothing if it is trivialized or ignored.

Second, parents expect a commitment to quality education at all levels. If documented disparities keep occurring at various grade levels, action needs to be taken beyond promises or rhetoric. Standardized tests should be better utilized to determine more individualized learning strategies. Too often, parents and students struggle to identify the specific problems and/or concepts that have eluded them on grade-appropriate standardized exams. Classroom lesson plans, course outlines, sample problems and evaluation criteria should be readily available for parents who strive to reinforce classroom concepts at home.

Third, communication should be a top priority. School districts should have a clear process for articulating concerns to appropriate parties in a timely fashion. E-mail addresses and phone numbers should be available on school Web sites and/or printed brochures/handouts. Times and dates of public task forces or official meetings should be posted for interested community residents. Requests for feedback and input should be inclusive as public schools are representative of all facets of the community. Parents and/or community leaders who respectfully question various policies or suggest improvements should not be labeled as “troublemakers.”

Focused on improvement

Public schools play a vital economic and community development role in local communities.
School districts that continue to thrive are those that don’t take their support for granted and strive to improve themselves in partnership with the community at large.

Tupelo-based freelance journalist and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday writes frequently for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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