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Can we prove perception wrong?

It only took two meetings for a newly formed group of community members to stumble upon a key difference of opinions about our local public and private schools.

Are the private schools better than the public schools?

It’s a no-brainer question to parents paying to send their kids to private school, I imagine.

And the community leader who surmised that private is indeed better than public fits in that paying-parent group.

But a school board member across the table was quick to take offense, as I’d hope he would.

The public schools offer the same quality education students at private schools can get, the board member argued.

In the name of working together and sidestepping bickering to get to problem solving, the group of people invited to the table by the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee quickly moved on from the point.

It was the right move in the moment, but posing the question — Is private better? — to the public is something that will ultimately be necessary.

The chamber group — of which, in full disclosure, I am a member — knows that we’d be smart to begin changing the answer before we ask the question.

Different members of the chamber group have different passions they’d like to see tackled first in our public schools — new buildings, safety, curriculum, character building, etc.

All are needed, but my personal passion — one I’ve had since I moved to town and started covering the public schools — is public perception.

A job as a newspaper reporter takes you a lot of places — high above the earth in a hot-air balloon, below the city in hidden canals, behind closed doors and into very public places.

No one needs a press pass to visit our local public schools, but few beyond students, teachers and parents ever make the trip.

After a few visits to the public schools and a few visits to the private schools my initial question — the one asked at the meeting — isn’t simply a no-brainer anymore.

As a general rule, public schools have more money to buy equipment, fuel special programs like a marching band and construct new buildings.

They can also typically attract better-trained teachers and administrators.

And they are held accountable in almost every way.

In my experience, there wasn’t much difference in a fourth-grade class at McLaurin Elementary and a fourth-grade class at Cathedral.

Yet, public perception wields infinitely more power than all those things.

The perception is that private is better — here and elsewhere — and, particularly in Natchez, that perception is spiraling out of control.

The groups meeting in town hope to begin tackling that problem from every angle, and we all acknowledge that safety and discipline are at the top of the to-fix list.

Those two things are likely what sway public perception more than academics and teacher quality.

Then, the district needs a serious marketing campaign sharing the stories of dozens of recent grads that are succeeding at the same or a higher level than private school graduates.

New schools are in order, as is a willingness by more in the community to mentor children.

But until then, the true answer to the question doesn’t matter, since perception will win.

If we change perception, we change the schools.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3511 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.