Focusing on the good things taking place in Beaufort County schools

By Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling

My personal success beating dyslexia (before it was even recognized as a reading disorder) to become a college and graduate school honor student, and my two-year consulting on parent engagement in schools in Vermont, Delaware and North Carolina by no means qualify me as an expert on education. However, those experiences heightened my awareness and understanding of schools if only from anecdotal points of view.
With that disclosure, I believe that I, like many others, have been focusing on news stories about attendance zones, budget battles between County Council and the School Board, unfair state funding formulas and most recently fiscal autonomy, while we’ve ignored and failed to support dedicated hard working teachers by acknowledging many good things taking place in Beaufort County Schools and failing to help with the challenges our teachers and administrators face.
Furthermore, perhaps by pointing fingers at school officials we have excused ourselves from our civic responsibility as a necessary part of the solution.
Given my personal interest, I jump at opportunities to visit schools. Within the past several months, I visited Lady’s Island, Broad River, Shell Point, Port Royal, Beaufort Elementary and Riverview Charter Schools.
I have been overwhelmingly enthused to witness the tender care provided by teachers and aides, the sense of community among faculty and students and an engagement in serious learning.
Last month I received and accepted my first invitation to visit a high school though I have attended events at Beaufort and Battery Creek High schools over the years.
I shadowed Battery Creek High School Principal Ed Burnes. My eyes were wide open as I thought about cynical comments by some members of our community who appear to adamantly not want their sons and daughters to attend the school.
Aside from learning first hand what a principal does, I observed classes in progress, the cafeteria during lunch and small groups of students huddled experiencing the fun of give and take while collaborating on projects in the media center.
Fortunately, the timing was such that I got to meet with the school’s Senior Leadership Team which includes the class presidents and vice presidents from each grade also an impressive event.
The following are some observations which, if I am honest with myself, were pleasant surprises against the backdrop of apparent ill feelings about Beaufort Schools and particularly Battery Creek High.
The level of “adult” dialogue among student leaders, expressing their concerns, recommendations of priorities and how the principal responded to them as young adults who take their responsibility seriously was extraordinary.
The sense of order throughout the school of over 770 students during class changes where students moved throughout the vast hallways and, by the second bell, classroom doors were closed and teachers were conducting classes to attentive and seemingly engaged and well behaved students
While I am sure my findings are no surprise to the hundreds of teachers in our schools, and perhaps some of the parents who give to the community through volunteering at their children’s schools, it was a well worthwhile morning for me and clearly a very pleasant eye opener given I had preconceived notions and have perhaps be wearing “blinders” caused by the negative atmosphere about schools in our community.
Had I been invited to shadow Dr. Durbin at Beaufort High School, I have no doubt the experience would have been similar though some of the programs may have differing focus.
My conclusions are not complicated:
1. Our schools are simply not broken.
2. They need a strong injection of community support through OUR help and support.
If I had to diagnose the biggest challenge to “fixing” our schools, I would not focus on “shortcomings” of the hardworking teachers and their aides or those who train and oversee them.
Rather I would attend to parent absenteeism, as many parents are not preparing their children for school and failing to participate in their children’s education, leaving an almost crippling burden on the teachers and likely handicapping families and perhaps holding back or slowing down students who are better prepared because they are supported by parents who can do so.
I know I am now getting into politically charged and perhaps even politically inappropriate territory for a Mayor of a small city which formally has little if anything to do with managing our schools.
But, I also understand that — like dealing with gun toting teenagers, as I did several months ago by helping and encouraging a newly created neighborhood group to work with those at risk for their lives — some one has to start the conversation about what WE might be able to do to help our teachers and their students.
The first place to find the answer is to look in the mirror to see what each of us can offer.
We face a very complicated reality we can no longer ignore:
As important as it may be, many parents are not able to provide the level of support others provide: an increasing number of parents are single mothers who leave for work as early as 5 a.m. and return as late as 8 p.m. leaving no time to spend with their children; during their own childhood some mothers and fathers did not learn from example positive and strong parenting; yet others do not feel adequate, because they were not formally educated, to offer what their children need; and finally, there is the reality of some parents (I would like to think this is fewer than some believe) who simply shirk the responsibility for their children and expect the rest of us to carry the burden.
We cannot change all of this overnight. But we can accept the reality and work together to compensate as children need positive support from somewhere.
Working with parents to help them understand and meet their responsibilities is a huge challenge but, no matter how much we disapprove and perhaps even resent them for not carrying their weight, we must acknowledge what is missing and develop strategies to improve student preparedness and provide aggressive and comprehensive after school support … if we want our schools to be even better.
I do not know all of the answers, but aggressive tutoring and mentoring is one way we can compensate; volunteering to work and financially support before and after school programs like Thumbs Up, The Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, the new community group called Circle of Hope Coalition and others, is a good place to start.  And finally, we must encourage and reward those teachers and administrators who are already going the extra mile to close the gap between those who have strong home backgrounds and those who do not.
Perhaps it is time for us to look in the mirror and do our job as a community by finding ways to support needy students and the many parents who must become better parents so they will be better equipped to help their children when they are not at school rather than dumping large numbers of students on the teachers.
I know we can do better and there is not a better time to engage than right now!

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