Forums spotlight minority issues

Parents, students, officials meet to talk about diversity in schools and meeting children's needs

April 01, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Whether they had students in the system or young ones whose school days lie years down the road, the parents who gathered in the media center at Eldersburg's Liberty High were asked a common question: How could Carroll County schools be more responsive to their children's needs?

Fortified with sandwiches, cans of soda, chips and cookies, the parents and a few teens at the region's minority family forum sat down to talk about their concerns, sometimes based on interactions in or with county schools.

The rules for discussion were few and straightforward for the three groups - one for parents of elementary-age children, another for middle and high school parents, and one for the teens - that they created: No school names or names of personnel. Just the stories of their experiences, their frustrations, their suggestions.

"We just want to make sure the schools are open to diversity," said Kara Lopez, who moved with husband, Ruben, from Montgomery County five years ago. The couple wanted to get informed early for their 3-year-old daughter's sake.

"How are you guys prepared for us to get involved?" Ruben Lopez asked in the elementary-school group he and his wife joined at one table. Lopez, who is from Mexico, was referring to ethnically diverse families like his, particularly as their numbers continue to grow in Carroll. "Is the county prepared for that?"

The Helping All Families forums are meant to give community members a chance to be heard and to suggest ways for the school system to help them with various issues - including parenting, race, religion, education, economics and culture - that could affect their children's success. The Liberty High meeting was the second of five planned throughout the county.

The series follows a set of forums held last fall, which focused more on distributing information and being more accessible to the community, said Karen Ganjon, the district's director of minority achievement and intervention programs.

But the spring forums are intended to bring in information.

"We're listening, we are open, and we want to seek to understand," Ganjon said. "We're not here to say, `Yes, but ... '"

Like the Lopezes, Westminster resident Kimberly Watts also had a proactive approach, as her 4-year-old has yet to start elementary school.

Watts went to school in Baltimore, she said, and wasn't familiar with the racial mix in Carroll schools, or the resources available should tensions arise among races or ethnic groups.

"I want her to be able to be comfortable," Watts said of her daughter, to fellow parents and the facilitators, as well as Superintendent Charles I. Ecker.

At an adjacent table, Pamela Lee suggested a possibility to help Watts' daughter and other students. Her group had discussed the need for visible celebrations of other cultures in school - and not only at times such as Black History Month.

Maybe teachers need diversity training, said Lee, whose daughter is a sophomore at Liberty. "Instead of having freshman seminar, do like diversity ... for the students and staff."

"We do have a class on multicultural issues," said Peg Kulow, supervisor of intervention services and a facilitator at Lee's table. But those classes are not mandatory, she said.

"I like your idea of having something for the kids, as well," Kulow added. For students, diversity is often only addressed through multicultural literature.

"It's not enough," Lee said.

Some of the parents who attended last week's meeting said they sensed that the forums offered a real chance to be heard and to be part of the process.

"In a very small way, I feel we are making a difference," said Gloria Boone, who has children in elementary and middle schools.

A native of Mexico, Boone and her family moved from Montgomery County a couple of years ago. Although she attended similar sessions in Montgomery, Boone said she felt encouraged when she saw Ecker and Donald Pyles, director of middle schools, engaging in the discussion.

"To have those two ... I'm just blown away," said Boone, who added that she never saw an administrator at Montgomery meetings.

Ganjon and Patricia Levroney, the minority achievement liaison who organized the forums, said they hope to sort the concerns and ideas from all five evenings into items they can immediately address, others they can respond to with a short-term plan, and still others they can tackle over a longer period, Ganjon said.

Margot Williams, whose daughter is a junior at Liberty, said the group environment added a sense of being able to safely express one's views - and see them taken to the proper channels.

"It's very helpful, because parents - people on the whole - would not want to voice their opinion one-on-one," Williams said. Ganjon said creating such an atmosphere, where people feel comfortable being honest and open, is ideal.

"Anytime we can have an environment where we believe that people bring that openness, and they believe that we are really listening and going to try and respond ... that's like the best thing that we can accomplish," she said. "There are no quick fixes to some of the problems identified by people who attended, but there is also a huge willingness to work together. ... That is a very positive thing."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

MINORITY FORUMS

The following are the dates and locations for the three remaining Helping All Families forums:

April 11

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church

38 W. Baltimore St., Taneytown

RSVP date: April 4

April 25

Manchester Elementary School

3224 York St., Manchester

RSVP date: April 18

April 26

North Carroll High School

1400 Panther Drive, Hampstead

RSVP date: April 18

RSVP to Patricia Levroney, 125 N. Court St., Westminster 21157 or ptlevro@k12.carr.org.

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