District working to keep stakeholders informed

Published 12:01 am Friday, December 21, 2007

NATCHEZ — Five minutes into a school community meeting last spring a communication problem became strikingly evident.

More than 200 parents showed up, seemingly ready to pounce. The public made it clear they felt they had no voice in the school district.

Nine months later, district administrators have taken note and made community meetings a quarterly event.

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Natchez-Adams School District Superintendent Anthony Morris said he feels the communication lines are opening up, slowly but surely.

But not everyone in the community is ready to agree.

Coming together

The meeting last spring was a mandatory one on the district’s part, forced by the fact that the middle school was failing No Child Left Behind Act standards.

Federal law required administrators to tell parents and stakeholders about their plans to improve the school.

The superintendent gave a slideshow presentation, and opened the floor for questions. The response was more than an hour of raised voices and pointed accusations.

This September, the district opted to begin a series of regularly scheduled community meetings to tell the public more about ongoing school matters.

So far, both meetings this year have allowed for submitted questions, but have not given an open microphone to the audience.

That format has left some parents unhappy, said Joseph Logan, the father of a Natchez High School junior.

“I believe the public is suspicious of what’s really going on,” Logan said. “There are some things that we as the public need to address to the school faculty and administrators that we are not really getting the open door to do.”

Morris has encouraged parents and community members to contact his office through written notes, and promised to address concerns as soon as he can.

But Logan said the community’s concerns need to be talked out face-to-face if anything is going to change. Logan said he understands that a large meeting with raised voices is ineffective, but has another idea to improve communication.

“We need to have a coalition from the community to represent the community with the school board,” Logan said. “We need credible people that can see what’s going on and what’s happening.”

Morris said he’s working to improve that relationship with the community, by quelling suspicions.

“At first people did think we had something to hide,” Morris said. “But that’s changing. It’s not happening as fast as I would like it to, but it’s changing.

“We’d love to have you come and visit, but don’t go on hearsay, come hear the true story.”

Right now the school district uses notes home to parents, school newsletters and the local media to get that true story out.

Students collect handouts throughout the week and take home folders to parents each Thursday containing important school information.

Some parents have signed up to receive information via e-mail as well.

But one thing that’s been missing from the district for the last three years may be hurting the communication lines.

Relating to the public

The public relations office at the central office has been empty since the retirement of Millicent Mayo in 2003.

The budget has not allowed for a new hire, Morris said. But he’s hopeful that will change next year.

Filling that position is key to the perception of the schools, Mayo said.

“(The community) wants to know. If they know what’s going on they are OK with it. It’s when they think you are hiding something that there’s a problem.”

Mayo — a 31-year educator — handled PR for the district from 1999 to 2003.

“My job was to keep the business people informed about what was going on,” Mayo said. “We wanted the community to know what was going on in the school district. Everything that went on in town I went to.”

Mayo also published a frequent newsletter that was distributed to school employees, Partners in Education, business leaders and parents. The newsletter highlighted special events and good news going on all over the district.

Since her retirement, PR duties have been handled by building principals and the district human resources manager, though that position was also vacant for some time.

PR person or not, the district’s challenge is finding an effective way to communicate with parents and stakeholders in the community.

What Logan wants is the flip side — an open door for the community to communicate with the schools.

“We need a voice from the community.”