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Problem of perception: Two schools hope to overcome community characterizations

Sandy Lloyd had heard the stories about Maxwell Elementary being the school of choice in McDuffie County. She had heard them, but she wasn't sold on the idea.


Click on graphic for larger image.

Mrs. Lloyd's son, Davey, is a student at Maxwell, but she said she would be just as satisfied with his education if he was a student at Thomson Elementary.

"I like Maxwell. I'm satisfied with Maxwell, but I don't see it as being a better school than (Thomson Elementary)," said Mrs. Lloyd, who has been a substitute teacher at both schools.

With the recent controversy surrounding the racial balance between Thomson and Maxwell Elementary, the issue of school supremacy has been lurking in the background.

Views were expressed during the Board of Education hearings indicating that the public thought more highly of Maxwell, a former National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence winner. This public perception, in the eyes of some school officials, has been the cause of swapping attendance zones which, in part, has intensified the racial imbalance.

Many, like Mrs. Lloyd, think this view is erroneous and that the two schools are on equal footing in the education of their students. She said that in some ways the learning process at Thomson Elementary is more conducive to the typical student.

"I think the students at Thomson Elementary have more of a chance to express themselves. The ones at Maxwell are kind of programmed to death," Mrs. Lloyd said. "I wouldn't have any problem with my child going to Thomson Elementary."

Many in the community, though, still hold the view that Maxwell is the better choice of schools despite the state of Georgia's designation of both as Title I distinguished schools. That distinction is one that few schools in the state have acquired.

A perception problem?

Some parents don't share Mrs. Lloyd's feelings toward Thomson Elementary. There have been several reported cases of students attending Maxwell while living in the Thomson Elementary zone.

Former Maxwell Principal Hannah Fowler said the disparity between the schools that those parents see is not truly the case.

"I don't feel that it's reality," she said.

Dr. Fowler thinks the problem may have started when her former school won state and national recognition several years ago. While people may cite those awards as reason to send their child to Maxwell, the choice to participate in the awards programs is up to the administration.

"Of course we did get recognized for Georgia School of Excellence and National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, and that, I think, started setting a precedent," Dr. Fowler said. "Any school has the opportunity to apply for that, and it's an application process."

Lynne Entrekin, a former lead teacher at Thomson Elementary, thinks part of the perception comes from the school buildings themselves.

"Obviously Maxwell is a newer facility," Mrs. Entrekin said. "Because it is newer, even when it is renovated, it looks airier and more open and brighter, something you can't do when you've got a much much older building like Thomson Elementary's building."

Mrs. Entrekin also said that many people perpetuate the disparity between the schools without even knowing it. She said parents will talk about how much they like their child's school without having a basis for comparison.

"I think that maybe there are people who are making statements who haven't been in the schools and don't know what they're talking about," Mrs. Entrekin said.

Some have referred to Thomson Elementary as an "inner city" school while considering Maxwell a suburban school when the two are only about a mile apart. Thomson Elementary Principal Donald Davis doesn't have a problem with having the distinction of being a city school.

"Being a city person, I don't have any negative concepts when we talk 'city,'" he said. "If they have something that generates negative ideas, or if they were sending negative messages, that's something that they developed within their own thought process."

With the attendance zones that are currently in place, the Board of Education's Vice Chair Georgia Hobbs said Thomson Elementary should be getting recognition for achievement in test scores that are comparable to Maxwell.

"Thomson Elementary has more kids coming from an underprivileged segment of society, and when you really look at their test scores, you realize that they've had a harder job of bringing their kids up to grade level," Mrs. Hobbs said. "Actually they should be the school that's getting the 'hoorahs,' but they're not. But people don't understand that."

Also, according to Dr. Davis, the transfer rate of students between schools in McDuffie County is proof that the perception of one school's superiority is unfounded.

"In this district we get a lot of transition between schools," Dr. Davis said. "I would not be uncomfortable saying that in a given year we probably exchange anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of our students among the three elementary schools in the district. So we're all teaching the same children."

A marketing issue?

During the March Board of Education planning session, Board Chair Tommy Phelps stated that part of the problem between the two schools is the fact that the administration at one was better at marketing itself to the public. While some think marketing is a necessity, others view it as damaging to the entire district.

"I think our job is to provide children with the best educational opportunities that we can, and to have accountability for doing that," Dr. Davis said. "I think the schools here in McDuffie County do a very good job of achieving those goals. ...

"I think when it comes to marketing, you want to put forth the best points of your facility, and I think we all do that. I think as far as the overall perception of the district, those are issues that board members and others, we all have to work to make sure that the community perceives the entire district in a positive light."

Dr. Fowler pointed out that letting the public know what is accomplished in the school is one aspect of her former job as principal.

"We do want the public to know what we're doing, and what we have been doing and that their children are being successful," she said.

But some think that the difference between the schools' style of publicity is what generates a perceived education gap between the two.

"Maxwell has put themselves out in the limelight by going for the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, and by making sure stuff is in the paper and making sure that things are recognized," Mrs. Lloyd said. "Thomson Elementary is recognized on the student level where Maxwell is recognized on the administrative level. ... To me that's not as important as the students getting recognized."

A question of race?

Balancing the racial composition of Maxwell and Thomson Elementary is what initiated discussion on the public opinion of the two schools. And while Mrs. Hobbs wishes the race issue would go away, it is one topic that will continue to surface while there are attendance zones in place.

"You are never going to get a stable situation where you've got the same racial make up anywhere for longer than five minutes," Mrs. Entrekin said.

"We do have some zone jumping. I think we have that from probably, well there's no probably about it, I know for sure from both ethnic groups," Dr. Davis said.

But Dr. Davis went on to say that students' being out of zone is not as big a problem as it has been made out to be.

"Within the district I think we're probably going to find that by and large people are in zones where they should be," he said. "I'm sure that there are some exceptions to that, but in a community this size, it's relatively easy to know whether your next-door neighbor's child is going to school out of zone."

Still, school officials believe that the racial balance between the schools is important enough to warrant discussion and eventual action. While the board has voiced its opinion in favor of taking small steps to correct the imbalance, school officials point to the uneven percentages.

"If people would bother to come and go in both schools and just walk around and look in classrooms, they would see that yes the statistics are correct in what they show the student populations to be," Dr. Fowler said.

Much of McDuffie County, though, shares the opinion of Mrs. Hobbs, thinking that problems dealing with race in any capacity reflect a poor image on the county and the school system.

"If people could quit worrying about this color issue, because that's not where it is." Mrs. Entrekin said. "We don't worry about it with sports. We don't worry about it with who shops at what grocery store."

Web posted on Thursday, April 8, 2004

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