Community discusses Robert Lewis Middle School situation

Published 4:53 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All vocal parties agreed on one thing at a Monday night community meeting called to address Robert Lewis Middle School — things have gotten out of hand.

Police were called to the school last Thursday to break up a protest, and adults resulted to yelling at a Tuesday night meeting to discuss the future of the school.

But Monday’s meeting went more smoothly, and its declared focus was just that — calming things down.

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“We are here today because of a certain unrest that has occurred in our community,” organizer Michael Winn said. “(We) are all here on one accord. We are all proclaiming one message, to encourage those students to go back to school on Tuesday and plan to pass that test.”

Students have been on Easter vacation since Thursday afternoon. In three weeks the students will take the state mandated Mississippi Curriculum Test.

Winn, NAACP President Alfred Hunter, RLMS Interim Principal Larry Hooper, Superintendent Anthony Morris and school board Chairman Norris Edney all urged parents to get their children focused on the upcoming test.

Thursday’s protest was the result of a belief on the part of students and community members that Hooper had been suspended due to alleged testing violations.

But Morris said last week and Monday that Hooper was taking a personal day away from work.

“On Tuesday, he informed me that a tree had fallen on his house,” Morris said Monday night. “Wednesday he informed me of the need to repair (the damage). I strongly encouraged him to take Wednesday off. He chose to take that Thursday. But I offered, given the fact that rumors were stirring that there would be problems on that Thursday.”

Morris said he felt there was nothing else he could do to sway Hooper to change his plans.

Later on Thursday, Hooper visited the school telling students a tree had fallen on his house, but also saying he was appealing a suspension.

Morris has declined to comment on details of any suspension, citing legal issues that prohibit discussing personnel issues.

Monday night, Hooper addressed the crowd of nearly 300 saying he was proud of his students and that the current situation was hurting the school, which had improved under his leadership.

“My kids behave,” he said. “I’m not bragging, but my kids behave. From what I’ve been told the school used to have a bad reputation for having fights. We don’t have kids that are fighting.”

Hooper stressed that he wanted to be at RLMS working with the students.

“I took a pay cut to come to Natchez, a huge pay cut,” he said. “I’m OK, don’t worry about me.”

Morris also said last week’s events had hurt the children.

“In the last few weeks we have taken a giant step backward,” he said. “Adults have to be proper role models, and for things to escalate the way they did, some people had to get out of their place.”

Morris also questioned why the NAACP — responsible for much of Monday night’s meeting — had not come to personally talk with him. Morris pointed out that many of the comments in the last week have been aimed at criticizing him, and in turn have missed the real point.

“I sincerely ask all of us to reevaluate what we are doing to each other and what we are doing to our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews,” Morris said. “Regardless of how I’m treated, I’m going to do the very best I can for the boys and girls of Adams County.

“Are you in favor of more economic development in Natchez and Adams County? When we act like we are acting right now potential businesses and industries read the paper. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. It is bigger than Anthony Morris, bigger than Larry Hooper.”

Winn responded saying some citizens felt they didn’t have a voice with the school district. He told the crowd they did have a voice, first through the schools then through the NAACP.

“The problems will be dealt with, but it’s important that we come together and be unified,” Winn said.

Edney responded later that he was unsure what Winn meant by saying the problems will be solved.

“Mr. Winn has not come to me,” Edney said. “No person has come to me with a Robert Lewis Middle School problem at all. But before we get to where we are (last week’s events and Monday night’s meeting), you should have said ‘I told him and he wouldn’t do anything about it.’”

Edney stressed the original reason for the latest problems at RLMS — the failure to test enough students in nine federally-mandated subgroups.

“If a kid, one kid, misses that kid could affect four subgroups,” Edney said. “All we have to do is send the right number of kids. Be sure they get there. That sounds simple because it is real simple.”

The school has failed to test the required 95 percent in all nine subgroups for four years. This year they are required by No Child Left Behind legislation to begin a restructuring of the school. Restructuring means choosing between five options including agreeing to a series of state-approved reforms or becoming a charter school.

Community members addressed the school leaders with questions at Monday’s meeting, including one from Winn about the number of administrators at the school.

Morris responded saying the school staff was arranged at the start of the year by then-principal Bettye Bell. Bell requested one principal and two lead teachers.

Soon after school started Bell had health concerns and was forced to step aside. Assistant Principal Hooper became interim principal and Marilyn Turner became interim assistant principal.

Bell stood up at Monday’s meeting to say she’d aligned the school according to state law. A school of 500 is required to have one principal and one administrator. The next cutoff bumping the requirement to three administrators was higher than the enrollment at RLMS, she said.

Others in the audience urged parental support, saying the school would never succeed without the parents.

Winn said he and several other community leaders would meet soon with the school board and Morris.

The school board has a regularly scheduled meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday at Braden School.