Family friendly State superintendent visits Miller, Morningside schools

State superintendent visits Miller, Morningside schools

jmink@macon.comFebruary 25, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Students at Miller Elementary School were silent and wide-eyed Monday as their principal introduced the guest speaker.

After all, he is “the big boss of everybody,” principal Gwendolyn Pearson-Kilgore told the tiny audience.

Students burst into cheers and applause, some scurrying over to their guest after the ceremony to give him a hug. That type of friendly behavior is one reason why state school Superintendent John Barge visited Miller and Morningside elementary schools.

The Houston County schools were two of three schools to win the first Georgia Department of Education Family-Friendly Partnership School Award.

“You guys have this family partnership thing going on here in Houston County,” Barge told Morningside students.

Barge not only presented the schools with their awards, but he also chatted with parents about their school involvement and education issues.

Why is family friendliness so important that the state issued awards, and the top education official visited the winners? Studies show that children perform better academically when parents are involved, and the top reason parents are not engaged is because they do not feel welcome in the schools, Barge said.

“It’s really important for us to increase student achievement,” Barge said. So officials must “get parents engaged.”

Parents were engaged Monday as they met for a roundtable discussion with Barge, asking him questions ranging from budget cuts to technology.

Several parents are concerned with the amount of money flowing into their children’s schools. Statewide, there will be no new budget cuts on the local level, Barge said, though the state Department of Education will experience a reduction in funds.

“The biggest issue (for school districts) is we haven’t begun to restore previous cuts,” Barge said.

Houston County school Superintendent Robin Hines assured parents that the local school district is solid financially.

“We haven’t experienced some things other districts have experienced,” he said.

Still, school districts across Georgia are preparing for possible cuts in the face of federal sequestration. Statewide, education funding would experience an estimated $28.6 million slice.

In Houston County, the automatic budget reductions would mean cuts to the Impact Aid program, which benefits school districts that lose local property tax revenues because of federally owned land. About $2 million in Impact Aid would be cut from Houston County’s budget, as well as cuts to Title 1 funding and money that benefits special needs children, Hines said.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” he said, adding that the district will be able to handle the cuts, but he is not sure for how long.

Parent involvement

Parents also chatted about new technology. Hines highlighted the district’s technology projects that are part of the education special local option sales tax. A big part of those projects are infrastructure improvements, which will give schools better access to wireless Internet.

“I fully expect within a year we’re going to be a bring-your-own-device system,” he said, adding he realizes not every student has such technology, but that moving in that direction will foster more collaboration among students.

Barge also questioned parents, asking them how and why they are involved in their children’s schools. The schools were chosen for the family-friendly award after going through a lengthy process of surprise visits, program reviews, mock parent visits and interviews with administrators, teachers, parents, students and community members.

At Morningside, the school hosts a “Walk in Your Child’s Shoes” event; a parents’ center is located at the front of the school, and the cafeteria staff even engages parents with programs like the “Make Your Own Pizza” event.

“It’s not just about what happens in these four walls,” Principal Pat Witt said. “We go beyond the walls.”

Parents told Barge that they often visit their children’s classrooms, where they see how their children are learning. Because the school has built a good relationship with parents, that process is never disruptive, teachers said. The school also holds parent events at different times of the day, which is helpful, parents said.

When parent Ebony Dyson calls the principal, “she’s going to call me right back,” she said. “I don’t even want to move anywhere.”

At Miller, the school has open classrooms once a month when parents can see what happens in their children’s classes. Three staff members are dedicated to interacting with families, school employees transport parents to after-school events and teachers venture to a nearby apartment complex after school, where they tutor students.

“Teachers go to the apartment complex and tutor in math and reading or whatever homework they have,” Pearson-Kilgore said. “Parents will come by if they have questions.”

Since adopting his grandchildren, James Vest frequently volunteers at the school. Some of his tasks include working in the media center and playing Santa Claus each Christmas.

“I didn’t get to do that with my kids,” he said, “and I love these kids.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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