Perception is everything for public schools

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 19, 2007

NATCHEZ — Every citizen in Natchez and Adams County pays full tuition to the public schools.

And when those tax dollars exit the pocketbook and head downtown, a little perception develops to fill their place.

Some perceive that the schools need the money and are glad to share.

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Others gripe that the schools waste the dollars and do a bad job educating children.

Still others shake their heads at the notion that they’ll soon be writing out a real tuition check to one of the area’s three private schools. Their own children won’t reap the benefits of their tax dollars.

It’s these thoughts, fleeting as they may be, that begin to form the community’s perception of the importance of public education.

What we think

The perception of the public schools depends entirely on whom you talk to, Aldermen Theodore “Bubber” West said.

School employees feel the system is doing everything it can with the resources it has, West said.

Parents of children doing well in school think the schools are great.

And parents of children doing poorly want someone to blame, he said.

“I went through public schools and I would put my education against anyone anywhere,” said West, who sent his own children to public and private schools in town. “I think now, they are doing what they can do with what they have to work with.”

But ask again, and you’ll get a totally different answer.

“The public perception of the school system is actually bad,” parent Britt Gibson said.

Gibson sends his kindergarten son to Cathedral School.

“People do not feel their kids are getting an adequate education.”

Those are the sides of the coin district administrators must bring together if they want to see progress, an out-of-town accreditation team told them this year.

First things first

Before the district can change what people think about it, administrators have to convey the importance of education to students, parents and community members directly connected to the schools.

The basics are important, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Tutor said.

Children need to be at school every day if they are to learn. They need to be on time and they need to be dressed appropriately.

“When you see the percentage of daily attendance across the board we know we have a long way to go,” Tutor said.

The state requires schools to maintain a 93 percent attendance rate daily, and though most Natchez schools make the mark most of the time, it’s often too close for comfort.

Parents also need to show their children that they value the importance of education, Tutor said.

“It’s a matter of asking more than the first question,” Tutor said. “Push a little, ask more than ‘How was your day.’ Say, ‘Tell me what you are reading.’”

That method has worked for parent Matthew Minor. Minor said he wants to see his fourth-grade daughter — a student at McLaurin — get the most out of school.

“When the opportunity arises, I say how important it is to learn in school,” Minor said. “Even at the store, I can say ‘See how important it is, you’ll be able to count your money.’”

Public vs. private

Minor has committed to making the public schools work for his daughter.

“One of the things that’s happening is public schools are getting attacked and people say they are bad, but no one is trying to get in and fix it,” Minor said.

“I could pull (my daughter) out and put her in private school. But I’d be abandoning other kids that need help. I need to go in and try to make it better.”

But that’s not a mentality the parents of private school children have anymore, Gibson said.

“I have zero to do with the public schools,” he said. “When parents send their kids to private schools, they are going to spend their time on those private schools.

“Most parents, like me, would like to send their kids to the public schools. But it would take the school system getting better. The parents have to feel that their kids are going to come out adequate and have the education that they need.”

Public schools can offer a good education, sometimes better than the private and parochial schools can, Cathedral School Principal Pat Sanguinetti said.

“They can offer way more accommodations than what we can offer here,” he said. “I feel sometimes parents aren’t aware of that.”

The perception that the public schools are bad is bred from discipline problems, Sanguinetti said.

“Incidents that happen get blown out in the public worse than it was, that’s the bad rap the public schools take,” he said.

And when there’s a discipline problem at Cathedral, the school just doesn’t tolerate it.

“We have a lot more possibilities for discipline,” Sanguinetti said. “If a student needs to be put out of school, we are going to put them out.”

That often leaves the public schools with those not allowed in the private schools.

“The three private schools, we’ve got the cream of the crop,” Sanguinetti said. “That’s going to hurt the Natchez public schools. If we didn’t have the three schools and you put all of these students in public school you are not going to see bad (test) scores.”

But the private schools aren’t going anywhere, Sanguinetti said.

Changing minds

Superintendent Anthony Morris thinks change is happening, slowly.

By meeting with the public in a series of community meetings, Morris said he’s had the chance to address hearsay and tell the true story of good things in the schools.

Changing perception comes though communication, Morris said, and involving other sectors of the community can speed the process.

West agreed, saying churches and parents need to get involved in changing what is said about the local schools.

“Parents are very astute,” West said. “They’ve been to school. They need to bring discipline back into the home, then all entities need to work together.”