A strong public education system is one of the most important building blocks of any community. Strong public schools help attract new employers and encourage existing businesses to expand and hire new workers. A curriculum that encourages students of all talents — whether bound for university or a job in the high-tech trades sector — is a curriculum that builds up and retains local talent and attracts newcomers with outsiders’ perspective and strengths.

But no school system is perfect — each has its own set of problems and challenges that its leaders and the general public need to address and confront. Lynchburg is no different.

At the beginning of the year, the Lynchburg School Board and Lynchburg City Schools leadership kicked off a series of district-wide community meetings with a public meeting and discussion at Heritage High School. The areas participants agreed needed sustained focus were reading, special education, chronic absenteeism, alternatives to suspension and family and community engagement. In the audience at Heritage that cold January night were more than 100 folks from across the city who wanted to learn more about LCS and find out how they could contribute to its success.

At that meeting, according to reports in The News & Advance, participants could sign up for notifications about future discussions and events built around each of the areas of need identified at the first meeting.

Between February and May, LCS held 13 public meetings and discussions to give participants the opportunity to delve deeper into each of the topics, all areas of concern past school boards and past division leaders have been aware of and tried to address. Thirteen meetings … but the number of participants from the general public ranged from none to just 11 people.

To say the least, that’s disappointing.

The perspective of attendee Phil Stump, a community activist who spoke with News & Advance reporter Liz Ramos, shines a spotlight on what we believe to be the causes of the problem.

Stump attended meetings on both alternatives to suspension and community engagement. A lack of effort in reaching out to all communities in the city, especially communities of color, is a fundamental problem, he believes. “I think this was a wonderful beginning effort, but it really needs to be though through more carefully and to be more aggressive in really getting out and listening to the community,” he told The News & Advance. “I would just say in the future if they can publicize it really wide and send multiple reminders to people about [the meetings].”

Another shortcoming Ramos’ investigation shined light on was the location of many of the community meetings: the division’s information technology building at 3550 Young Place. You’re probably right there with us in wondering, “Where in the heck is Young Place?” Well, it’s “near River Ridge mall.” Can you catch a bus there? Can you walk there? What’s the parking availability?

Why division leaders chose their out-of-the-way IT offices as the site of numerous community discussions is beyond comprehension. If you want participation by as many people as possible, hold such meetings at locations that are easy for folks to get to. If the topic is chronic absenteeism, why not hold the discussion at one of the schools where it’s a big problem? Participants would be a ground zero, so to speak, and have a chance to meet school leaders and neighborhood residents, gaining valuable firsthand experience of the students’ world. Or for community engagement, why not hold a discussion at a church or neighborhood community center that’s been hard at work over the years to facilitate bonding between the local school and its community? Bottom line, go where the community is … not where you want folks to come to.

Most important of all, we believe, is to talk with and listen to meeting participants. Here again, Stump’s observations are insightful as to what the problem seems to be: “It seemed like a lot of the discussion [on family and community engagement] was how the school district could mobilize parents with special talents or needs to help the schools, rather than the school listening to what the needs are. Both are important, but there wasn’t enough attention, I thought, to listening.”

The topics these meetings have addressed are all serious matters that LCS leaders — and the community — need to focus on, if we want this division to be more than just “good” and “solid.” Tackling them and turning around the numbers would make Lynchburg City Schools a “great” division, but doing so can’t be done with orders issued from on high: It must be an effort with leadership coming from the greater community itself. That’s not what we’ve seen with LCS’ series of community discussions, leading us to believe it’s time division leaders did a “rethink” of the process.

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