Residents of East Baton Rouge Parish will be inundated with pleas to attend a series of 13 “listening sessions” over the next three weeks aimed at divining what they want to see happen in public education.
But will they come?
The Rev. Gerard Robinson Sr., pastor of McKowen Baptist Church, said he and other ministers in town hope they do. Robinson is one of several community leaders who converged Tuesday at the Baton Rouge office of specialty chemical maker Albemarle Corp. to announce the initiative, called Beyond Bricks EBR.
Robinson is a vice president with the East Baton Rouge Parish Ministers Conference, a coalition of 80 churches. He said the sessions could provide the spark for meaningful change.
“From discussions can come new ideas, innovative ideas that will help make East Baton Rouge public schools better schools, help make our children better children, and thereby make our community a better community,” Robinson said.
The listening sessions start on Jan. 28 at the BREC park on Cadillac Street in north Baton Rouge and end Feb. 12 at Northeast High School in Pride, but more can be scheduled if necessary. Organizers also plan to hold focus groups with students and gather feedback from residents through the initiative’s website, beyondbricksebr.org.
Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. urged residents to help him settle on “a common agenda of what can be done, short-term, midrange and long-term.”
“What we are trying to do … is to allow the community itself to influence what needs to be done,” he said. “I certainly am not all-seeing, all-knowing about anything.”
When the community doesn’t weigh in, the loudest voices tend to drive public action, he said.
Anna Fogle, a mother of two children in public school and board chairwoman of the Baton Rouge Association for Gifted and Talented Students, said Beyond Bricks has tried to learn from past efforts to glean public thoughts on public policy, including a series of town hall meetings in the ’90s like the ones under the auspices of the Kettering Foundation for civic improvement and others for BREC’s Imagine Your Parks initiative.
The Beyond Bricks sessions will be overseen by volunteer facilitators — a final training session for the facilitators is this Saturday — and jotted down by “scribes” at each table. Organizers are taking to TV, radio and billboards to get the message out. Once the sessions are over, the plan is to compile, analyze and report publicly the findings.
Then comes the most important part, Fogle said.
“We will engage whomever’s appropriate to address the issues raised,” Fogle said.
Angela Mendoza, communications specialist for Albemarle, said Albemarle, like many companies, has a vested interest in this topic.
“In order to attract talent, we have to have great public schools, and it’s something we struggle with, quite honestly,” said Mendoza, a former teacher at Westdale Middle School.
The Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, representing the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, said the community needs to help leaders because public education is a complex issue with many facets. She said that on Monday she asked a mother about her ideas for improving public education and the mother responded by talking about homelessness. McCullough-Bade wondered why the conversation veered in that direction, until the mother mentioned that her house had just burned down.
“It’s hard to learn, it’s hard to be focused, if you don’t know where you’re gonna sleep that night and you don’t know where your supper’s coming from,” McCullough-Bade said.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.