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Frustration, anger – but also hope for Allendale schools

Bishop Holston shared a personal story with the Allendale community: “If it was not for the public schools, I wouldn’t be standing here before you.”

Nearly 100 people gathered in Allendale to share their hopes and concerns about the future of Allendale County schools – and what that means for the future of their children, grandchildren and the community as a whole.

At the “Listening Post” event – hosted Feb. 11 by the Fellowship of South Carolina Bishops’ Public Education Initiative – parents, educators and local residents told bishops and other church leaders about their frustration, anger and disappointment at the state of their school system, which the state Department of Education took control of in June 2018.

Almost person-for-person, however, they also delivered a message of hope, confidence in the future and support for local schools, teachers, administrators and – most of all – for the children themselves.

“No matter where I go, I defend Allendale,” said Valaree Smith, who represents Allendale and four other counties on the State Board of Education. “We’ve got to love where we live, and don’t let anybody talk about our house.

“When you have that passion for your community, and start valuing education again, and start teaching your children to value education – that’s when change takes place.”

The Fellowship of South Carolina Bishops is a special ecumenical relationship among churches led by bishops of the African Methodist EpiscopalAfrican Methodist Episcopal-ZionChristian Methodist EpiscopalEpiscopalLutheranRoman Catholic and United Methodist churches.

The bishops collectively have been advocating for public education since April 2014, when they issued a joint pastoral letter pledging “our commitment to support the full flourishing of public education in South Carolina.” They expressed concern after the state Supreme Court in November 2017 dismissed a landmark school equity lawsuit, filed in 1993 to force the General Assembly to improve educational opportunities in the state’s poorest public schools.

“It’s going to take all of us working together – legislators, teachers, administrators, parents and students – to make the education experience what it should be,” said Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, resident bishop of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. “Students can’t speak for themselves, so we have to advocate for them.

“Educating all of our children is our priority. This is not about you and me, this is about the children and how we will begin to better their lives.”

The Right Rev. W. Andrew Waldo, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, made it clear why the bishops wanted to come to Allendale County.

“Education is one of the biggest challenges before us as a state – to make a fair and equitable system for all of God’s children,” Bishop Waldo said. “We are interested in hearing your specific concerns, so we might carry those concerns with us in our larger conversation.

“We especially want to connect with those of you in the faith community who already are working in public education, and encourage those of you who have not been to join us.”

The Fellowship has scheduled two “Public Education Advocacy Days” for Feb. 19 and March 21, during which training will be offered for those who want to advocate on behalf of children and their education, and attendees – including bishops, other church leaders and volunteers – will go to the State House and lobby their own elected representatives on the issues.

“We have a unique opportunity to talk to those who write legislation,” said the Rev. Dr. Doris Hicks, pastor of Cleaves Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia. “These laws are made, and we have to live by them. As we go to Advocacy Day next week, help us help them make laws we can live with.”




What Allendale said

Over nearly two hours during the “Listening Post,” the bishops posed five questions to the parents and others in attendance. Here is a summary of what they heard in reply:

What are the challenges and concerns around public education facing the Allendale community?

  • Security issues at some schools, including a lack of bus monitors and the lack of a “buzzer system” at Fairfax Elementary to control access to the school building.
  • The stigma that Allendale teachers cannot teach, that Allendale students are not capable of learning.
  • A disconnect between schools and communities, which are not always working together.
  • The perception that parents do not have input into decisions being made about their children’s education.
  • Many of the problems faced in classrooms start outside the schools, because some parents do not value or support their children’s education, or children are exposed to “toxic parts” of the community.
  • Disciplinary issues, including a lack of respect for teachers among some students and bullying.

What are the opportunities and hopes for the future for Allendale?

  • The influence of local churches and pastors, who share hope in Jesus Christ as the answer to many of the cultural issues that often start at home and make their way into schools.
  • Parents who teach their children to be obedient and talk to them about their future, about getting an education, about making a living.
  • Volunteer opportunities abound in Allendale County schools, an opportunity to bring the community into the classroom and have a direct, positive impact on students.
  • Parents, teachers and others in the community should take the time to really listen to young people, to understand what they are going through in school and in life.
  • Students need to be encouraged, and their confidence and self-esteem need to be lifted.

What are some significant next steps we could take?

  • Parents, educators and other local residents should talk with their elected officials at the local and state levels and hold them accountable for the decisions they make.
  • Establish a community center, a place where children and youth can go and “just be kids.” Ideally, one for older youth and another for younger children.
  • Invite state lawmakers to Allendale to discuss pending education legislation.
  • Provide more money to recruit more teachers to the area and to boost their pay.
  • Include adult education, which “picks people up when they fall through the cracks,” in advocacy efforts to make sure it is funded properly.

How can our religious communities be more proactive with the needs of our children and their education?

  • Create engineering labs in the community – possibly at local churches – and in schools to expose children to technology early.
  • Local churches can offer learning opportunities centered on parenting and the value of education, and provide incentives to students who perform well in school.
  • Members of the community can visit schools and make themselves available to students – especially those who have experienced trauma – to talk about issues they might not feel comfortable sharing with a teacher or a school counselor.
  • Give students a way to voice their opinions about what’s going on with them and their education.

How will we report back to the people of Allendale on our conversation with legislators during the upcoming Public Education Advocacy Days?

  • Schedule a follow-up meeting to share with the community what was learned or accomplished during the Advocacy Days, with a chance for local residents to respond.
  • Send a report about what was learned or accomplished during the Advocacy Days to those in attendance who shared their email addresses.
  • Provide an assessment and specific suggestions from the South Carolina Bishops’ Public Education Initiative regarding what churches and their leaders can do in their communities to make an impact on local schools and their students.
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