Brainstorms all over the city could bring showers of good ideas for Norfolk Public Schools.
Community meetings hosted by the schools' Parent and Community Engagement Committee system offer a chance for educators, parents and residents to talk about who bears responsibility for students' success and about ways to make more kids successful.
The work continues as Norfolk's School Board prepares to hire a new superintendent to steer the division through troubles that include a high dropout rate and low test scores that have left 10 of 47 schools without full accreditation.
These meetings invite everyone who lives here to offer something to the city's schools, to be part of making them better.
Schools mean more than classrooms for kids. They also stand as an economic development tool - companies considering a move to the area evaluate schools for what they offer to employees as well as for their training of the potential workforce. Schools anchor their neighborhoods, especially since the city and the school division have recently agreed to shared, community uses for school buildings after education hours.
So far, four of the 10 meetings scheduled have drawn a dozen or fewer participants. It's a pittance compared to the number of teachers, parents and citizens in Norfolk, but the small group conversations provide intimacy and honest exchange.
Those present seemed to take the questions they were asked seriously: What prevents students from doing their best? What can we do to change it? Whose responsibility is it to see that it happens? What do we have to give up to see that it works?
At a meeting at the Navy's Fleet and Family Support Center off Hampton Boulevard, educators from Sewells Point and Camp Allen elementary schools bounced ideas off parents and military members from the neighborhood.
One person urged retaining athletic programs as incentive for students to maintain a grade average high enough to stay on the team. Several educators worried about training young teachers not only in the subject matter but in classroom management. "You walk into a class and your management has to be airtight from day one," said Alley Dariah.
In addition to math and English, said Camp Allen Principal Deena Johnson Copeland, teachers train kids to work hard and be organized. "We have to open teachers' eyes," to everything that teaching entails, she said.
Groups at Fleet Family and at the Janaf Branch Library also tried to discover ways to match school needs to community resources. Participants wondered if the Norfolk Public Schools solicits financial support from the city's major employers and industries. Some suggested that schools could compile a list of needs, then reach out to businesses and civic groups within their neighborhood for volunteer help.
Jonathan Bowman said he attended a meeting at the Blocker YMCA last month. He had been considering putting his daughter in private school, but he left the meeting feeling "a lot better" about Norfolk's schools.
"It was great," he said. "There was a lot of passion. People were very involved and expressed how they felt."
Discussion helped define larger patterns in the schools, said Katherine Currin. She's a lawyer in the Public Defender's office, assigned to represent juveniles. She often deals with two aspects of the school system - how it handles disciplinary problems, and how it educates kids like some of her clients, who come from economically disadvantaged homes. Often, she said, stronger education is the answer to both problems.
"We're interested in helping them do better," she said.
She, too, left the meeting feeling hopeful. "It was seeing your public schools as not just a way of measuring your public education system but of measuring your community as a whole," Currin said. "It's something we don't see all the time."
Six meetings remain, including one at 5:30 tonight at Granby Elementary on Newport Avenue and one Thursday at Norview Methodist Church on Norview Avenue. Find the rest of the schedule on the school system's website, www.nps.k12.va.us.
The meetings are a chance to be part of a solution. It's a chance we should seize.
Michelle Washington is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org