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A Labor Day reflection on troubled waters in the CCSD

By Bertis Downs

Despite all the tumult at home over the eternal question of “how are the schools?,” I am grateful for a couple of days for rest and reflection in the cooler climes of the NC mountains just north of Athens.

I was touched this morning by yesterday’s post of my friend Lem LaRoche, who goes by the name of Life:

“If all sides truly believe that it’s about improving the educational outcomes for all Clarke County children, then surely there is a place in the middle to meet. I believe the community is yearning for adults to start behaving like adults. If we are discussing the children and strategies for improving the well-being of Clarke county children, let us keep our focus there. We can do better, Athens!”

Life and others making the same point are of course 100-percent right. For there to be a "healthy" community we need to pay attention to that word's first four letters: “heal” (as in “healing”). Yes indeed.

I also felt something pretty spiritual well up and wash over me during the opening hymn this morning at the Church of the Incarnation, our home church away from home when we are up here in the mountains. The tune was Coronation, number 450 in the 1982 Episcopal hymnbook— majestic choral/organ music stirring up all kinds of tears, chills and emotions probably going back to childhood, like everything does, right?  For all of us, regardless of our childhood(s).

As I sat there in the next few minutes with the normal liturgy and cadence of the Anglican prayer book service, I could not help but think back on home and all the turmoil over the schools that so many good people, me included, are feeling right now.  There are so many different points of view,  perspectives, hurts, fears, backgrounds, personal life experiences, job titles, lanes . . .  all of which right now has led to seemingly intractable gridlock; and worse yet, beyond that,  some raw and real and hard feelings of animosity among people who have for years been natural and genuine allies and friends working together to address persistent inequities in our community.

Well I agree with everyone else pointing out the need for us to all work together for the sake of the children in our community—  this current malfunction of the system is indeed most tragic for the children in our schools, since nobody gets those years in school back.  We agree on the urgency; there are disagreements on the How and the What of improving our struggling schools, especially if standardized test scores are the main focus (that’s a problem for another day, and another essay).

But I think it is past time for some of the key adults in our community to put in better and more successful efforts:  the school board, Superintendent Means, lawyer Pruitt, and your various teams,  yes I mean you.  You take oaths or sign contracts as public servants; you’re charged with making our schools reach their potential, public education done right: each child prepared for life. (Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation report cited at a conference a few years ago).

I can think of many adults right now who are working their hardest in our schools day in and day out;  and meanwhile we have an accreditation crisis and between the board, the superintendent and the lawyer, there is not even a clear path on whether the board may hire the obviously necessary independent counsel to advise it on this critical matter. Do people know what the stakes are when accreditation is put into play?  I cannot imagine that whomever filed this complaint with AdvancED do, especially if their goal is truly improving and not harming our local and public schools educating our 13,000 CCSD students.

So anyway, trying to pull this back into some sort of problem-solving mode, I can’t help but think that we have people in our community very capable of bringing others together, even people who disagree with each other on admittedly difficult, emotional terrain. People like Pat Priest, who does the annual Athens in Harmony event,  Mokah and Knowa Johnson, founders of the Athens Ant-Discrimination Movement, Ed Bolen and Abraham Moseley, with their long history of collaboration across town and between their congregations, the organizers of the yearly interfaith Thanksgiving service, the Jeanette Rankin Foundation who puts together the Time to Talk About Race series each spring, John Lash and his mediation and restorative justice work with the Georgia Conflict Center, and finally, maybe the most likely resolver of this thing:  the Peer Court that is working hard on real restorative justice in our high schools.  One thing is for sure:  everyone involved here (and all means all), whatever “side” one is on, deserves a hearing and beyond that, dignity in their work and their advocacy.

Athens is a music town, and a community known for its ability to work together across racial and ethnic lines. Rather than just sit here and read social media and hope the school board figures all this out, which I fully believe it will with the help of its own legal counsel (which even the CCSD (Means) attorney advises them to do), while waiting for some big solution by the adults charged with the well-being of every child in our district, maybe it’s time to turn to the power of prayer (or whatever higher power you believe in, if any) and the power of music, long known to be a thing that brings people together from divides way bigger than what we face in Athens now.

While the adults in the room search for some sort of compromise or mechanism or method for calming the waters, and getting CCSD back to teaching their students, changing their lives for the better, and supporting our schools, maybe us volunteers and people who want to help, maybe we could come together and mount some sort of community effort led by people of faith and/or people of music.  The way I see it, that couldn’t hurt and it just might help. Who wants to organize it?  I’m happy to help.

And I will close with a remembrance of the several times I have heard Rev. William Barber speak/preach: under his theories of The Third Reconstruction (which we are experiencing together right now) and Fusion Politics, he explains that throughout our country’s painful history, the only time real progress is ever made in bending the arc toward justice is when blacks and whites (and all others)  come together and work together across racial lines toward common goals.  And I am pretty sure is what most everybody squabbling right now really wants too, so let’s do that.

Here ends the afternoon meditation.

[Author's note:  If you are not a person of faith, I do not mean to minimize your point of view or be a jerk about anything.  This is just what was on my heart today as a person of good will who loves our community and its school deeply, wants the best for all our children and so I made the modest proposal.  Don’t let the religious stuff put you off.  Even if we disagree on that I bet we agree on some other important things.]

Bertis Downs is an Athens attorney and public education advocate.

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