Reaction to the Macon Miracle, Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s ambitious strategy to overhaul Bibb County’s school system, was mixed among the crowd at Friday’s “celebration” at the Macon Coliseum.
Some praised the plan and Dallemand. Others questioned certain portions of it, such as new grade groupings for schools. But the harshest criticism was of the celebration itself, which featured an almost hourlong performance by Chinese singers, dancers and acrobats.
“I was hopeful that the superintendent would have broken down the rationale behind the plan more,” said Eric Spears, a Mercer University professor and parent of Alexander II Elementary children. “It felt like more of a political stunt than an informative meeting.”
Spears came because he had questions about the restructuring of the schools and about yearlong school but left with those questions unanswered.
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“I think any parent would want to critically analyze any new plan ... and by critically I don’t mean negatively, I just mean asking some fundamental questions,” he said.
Some teachers, who declined to give their names, thought the program cut into valuable instruction time.
“I’m really enjoying the Chinese acrobats,” one said. “It’s really interesting to watch them. But you know we can watch this anytime. I think this is a waste of time on a Friday when we could have had instruction for the children all day.”
A student-teacher was disappointed that she learned nothing new at Friday’s event.
“I think we were expecting to come and find something out new, have more explanation. ... Actually I am extremely disappointed that they let our kids out half a day, losing half a day of instruction, for this. The performers were great, but that’s not what we were here for.”
Many of those attending listed proposed grade changes as their top concern. The new plan proposes to regroup the grades, with pre-K through third grade comprising elementary schools, fourth through seventh grades comprising middle schools and eighth through 12th grades comprising high schools.
Shemeki Smith, a mother of three, said the new grades are the lone flaw she sees in the plan.
“I like the plan so far,” she said. “The only thing I don’t agree with is the new grades. (Fourth-graders) are not mature enough to be in middle school. I hope I can learn the pros and cons of the plan.”
Jonyetta Beloney, the mother of twin 9-year-olds, shared Smith’s concern about the grade groupings. Her daughters will be fourth-graders next year.
“I don’t want them in a school with seventh-graders,” she said. “I don’t like that.”
Beloney said she favors the plan’s calls for maximizing schools to eliminate those with empty classrooms and for opening more alternative schools for disruptive students.
“At their school, my daughters have a hard time learning because the teachers have to take so much time out for discipline issues,” she said.
Erica Eaton, mother of a 6-year-old, called Friday’s program “very effective” and Dallemand’s speech “very inspirational.” She likes that the plan is “for our children” and that it takes a “holistic approach” that maximizes efficiency, offers real development opportunities for staff, encourages parental and community engagement and includes a “cost-savings component.”
Eaton, who has been attending school board meetings about the plan, said she’ll reserve judgment until she knows more.
“The devil’s in the details, and until I see the details I won’t know,” she said. “Anything that prepares my child for the 21st century, multi-ethnic, global economy and world, I’m for it.”
That includes, she said, the teaching of Mandarin Chinese to all students beginning in kindergarten.
“If you can learn Chinese, math, science and social studies ought to be a piece of cake,” Eaton said.
Several public officials, including members of Macon City Council and the Bibb County Commission, also attended.
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, a retired educator in the school system, said she has been following the plan since it was announced.
“We have to have something different,” Lucas said. “We need to change our graduation rate and increase confidence in the education system.”
Fellow Councilman Henry Ficklin, who teaches at Southwest High School, said he has seen some good things in the plan, but there’s lots more he wants to learn about.
“I think the board (of education) needs to listen to the core community concerns, so that (the plan) meets the least type of resistance,” he said. “The community needs to see a plan without resistance.”
Many of the teachers and staff members declined to comment about the plan, some citing concerns for their employment. Those employees who would comment did so anonymously for the same reason.
“I want to keep my job,” more than one school employee said.
District officials said there were no directives from administrators not to speak with the media.
James E. Smith, who works in school transportation, lauded the plan’s focus on keeping students in the classroom, even if it’s in an alternative school, saying that should improve graduation rates and student performance. He hopes people will give the plan a chance.
“I think the plan is like any other thing,” he said. “People have to understand the concept of it and what it’s meant to bring about.”
The interview with Smith and a co-worker was interrupted by a school staffer who ordered the two back inside during the performance by the Chinese students. The staffer scolded them for talking to the media without required clearance from the central office.
When told by a reporter that central office personnel had said no one at the event was off-limits for interviews, the staffer said, “They’re on duty!”
A woman who identified herself as a cafeteria worker at one of the Bibb County high schools said she attended in part to learn more about the proposed 300-plus job cuts and plans to close as many as 12 elementary schools.
“It could affect the support staff, as well, not just the teachers,” she said. “That could be hundreds of support staff out of work.”
Despina Passias, a mother of one, said she had problems with the plan as a whole.
“I don’t feel they should be in school from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” she said, referring to a point in the plan that proposes expanded school days. “I don’t think children should be in that environment for that length of time. ... I know changes need to be made, but I don’t feel like these are the right changes.”
Eric Manson, parent of a fourth-grader, called the plan “bold” but hinted that it could have gone even further in overhauling the system.
“Our job is to prepare our children for their roles of becoming the leaders, the parents, the educators of tomorrow. When you look around the world, all you see is change, and for the most part the world is a better place for it.”
Manson praised Dallemand for “the courage of accepting the challenge.”
“No one can say of our superintendent, in today’s age of being politically correct and waffling back and forth, that he’s taking the middle of the road,” he said. “This is a beginning. This is a process. There are going to have to be tweaks and challenges. ... If we all focus on the end goal, what we’ll have at the end is a richer product and process.”
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Liz Bibb, call 744-4425.