New Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Angela P. Hairston is doing only audio recordings of her sessions with the community “to be sure that I hear what I’m supposed to hear.”
Hairston heard from a group of about 50 people at East Forsyth Middle School in Kernersville on Thursday during a community listening session, saying that the intent of the audio recordings is to “listen for common language themes.”
She said she has visited a number of schools throughout the district and is already hearing similar conversations around student achievement.
“The reason we listen carefully is to ensure we are hearing the right things so when I share back with the board of education, we can steer our work in the right direction,” Hairston said.
Since mid-September, Hairston has been holding listening sessions for the community as well as school system staff.
The meeting at East Forsyth Middle was her fifth session. She has nine left on her schedule.
“I want to ensure you that the board of education is very interested in what you have to say, what you think and how you feel,” Hairston said. “It drives a lot of our work.”
Topics from people in the community included large class sizes, a mandatory African American history class, helping students read at grade level, guns at school and the need for more Spanish interpreters.
Andrea Brueske, a parent of two students at Mount Tabor High School, said she is concerned about the overcrowding in several classes at Mount Tabor and a lot of local schools.
“I know that there is a mandate for K-3 to have lower class sizes but there hasn’t been anything for middle school and high school,” Brueske said.
Stephanie Wallace, a teacher at East Forsyth High School, said that high school teachers need support to help students who reach high school and are not reading at grade level.
“Like the gentleman said a while ago, the reading is the key to everything,” Wallace said, adding that students need to read in every subject, including math.
Myra Worrell, a WS/FCS retiree who came back to work part time, said that one of her biggest concerns is some of the “one-race” schools in the district.
“Most are them are across Highway 52,” Worrell said, adding that she personally believes the highway is a dividing factor.
“So many of the schools on that side are filled with black and Hispanic children that are reading two and three grade levels behind,” she said.
She said she hears that WS/FCS is concerned about every student, but there are still students who are not succeeding in the school system.
“We have schools that parents will not send their children to,” Worrell said.
Al Jabbar, a volunteer at Petree Elementary School, spoke of the need to have mentors to spend time with African American male students.
“Maybe you can address some of this in terms of why young black males in predominately black schools…have become a feeder system for our prison system?” Jabbar said to Hairston.
Hairston said this was the first time someone had mentioned the number of students in classes to her, but she would look into all class sizes.
She said the school system has some heavy lifting to do.
But, she said, “Often times when we have schools that are challenging, we can sometimes assume everything is challenging. What I have to say is that every community has greatness going on.”
She gave such examples as a recent farm day at a school and an upcoming shoe drive by the mother of NBA All-Star Chris Paul.
She also said that diversity is a plus in Forsyth County “because diversity forces us to be better people.”
Hairston added, “Children lots of times don’t see beyond where parents take them, and often times they need to see a man in a suit. They need know, ‘What exactly do you do, so I can maybe aspire to be that?' We actually have enough men in the district to have a districtwide mentoring program.”
She said that literacy is important, saying that although there are a number of children reading on grade level there is a gap in certain communities.
“I bring to you the experience in working on those gaps,” Hairston said. “I will say, there’s going to be heavy lifting and there’s going to be us having to focus because often times we’re not focused. But we also have to let our parents know what we expect of them."
Guns at school
Julie Fritz, a co-education lead for the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said her group is concerned about guns in schools.
Already, at least three guns have been found this year at schools in the district.
Last week, Hairston asked parents to make sure students don't bring toy guns to school.
Fritz said Moms Demand Action members have been talking for about three years to school officials about free programs available through Moms Demand Action as well as Sandy Hook Promise, an organization aimed at protecting children from gun violence.
She said her group is excited that the Sandy Hook Promise Say Something Anonymous Reporting System will be implemented in North Carolina schools this year. The goal of the anonymous reporting system is to allow students and adults to be able to confidentially report safety concerns to help prevent violence.
But Fritz said it has been unclear about what’s happening with the use of the app system in the WS/FCS district.
“There’s just not been enough communication,” Fritz said.
Hairston told Fritz that the app will be rolling out after logistics have been worked out so that the system can be monitored.
Gloria Oseguera, a member of an Hispanic committee made up of parents at Atkins High School, said that it is hard to get some Hispanic parents engaged in programs and activities at the school because some do not speak English well.
Oseguera said she would like to see more interpreters in the school system.
Alvi Dove-Ali, a parent, voiced her concerns that her daughter is not being taught some of the things she learned when she was in school.
“I completely and totally push for not just a broader-based African American, Hispanic and multiculturally diverse social studies and history program, but a more diverse program in all of our curriculum,” Dove-Ali said. “There is so much information that is being lost of so many generations.”