Smithfield Herald

‘We want to hear what you have to say’

Bryan Lopez, standing, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Smithfield Middle School, addresses a crowd of teachers, staff and parents at the Smithfield-Selma Kitchen Table Conversation.
Bryan Lopez, standing, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Smithfield Middle School, addresses a crowd of teachers, staff and parents at the Smithfield-Selma Kitchen Table Conversation.

The Johnston County school system needs to be more transparent and trustworthy while also promoting a positive perception of schools, according to parents, teachers and staff in Smithfield-Selma schools.

More than 60 teachers, parents, students and staff – most of them invited – gathered March 22 at Smithfield-Selma High School for Superintendent Ross Renfrow’s “Kitchen Table Conversation.”

The Smithfield-Selma attendance district is made up of the following schools: SSS, Smithfield Middle, South Smithfield Elementary, West Smithfield Elementary, Selma Elementary, Selma Middle and Wilson’s Mills Elementary. Each was assigned a table, forming teams for discussion.

While Renfrow asked each table to focus on the school system as a whole, much of the discussion at the tables, each covered in a red-and-white-checkered cloth, turned to Smithfield-Selma schools and the challenges they face.

At the SSS table, parents and teachers said they wanted to see the school system focus on “showing the positives” to combat the negative perception of Smithfield-Selma schools. They called for using “good PR to cover the bad PR,” and they called for the school system to use the media, including social media, to promote those positives.

“Leadership needs to be setting a tone of promoting and protecting our schools equally,” one attendee said. “We need to feel like they have the schools’ back and that they’re being open and transparent with us. We need to feel like we can trust them.”

One way to project a better image of SSS is to get students more involved in the community, some said.

James Gathers of Smithfield, who sat at the SSS table, said he has four grandchildren coming up through Smithfield-Selma schools. He called for a more-diverse school administration, redistricting to restore racial balance in the county’s schools and more community participation in the schools.

“The kids need to feel they have someone in the administration they can relate to,” Gathers said. “When you get a principal that’s not from the east side of Smithfield, they don’t understand the problems some of these kids are having. We need to find some kind of diversity so kids can feel like someone understands and they have someone to talk to.”

Gathers said the administration should represent the community it serves.

Gathers was one of the few community members who attended the event and was far outnumbered by teachers, staff and administration. Gathers said the school system needs to do a better job of including the community.

“The reason they don’t come to a meeting is because the agenda is already set; they can’t ask the questions or find the answers they want,” he said. “This is nice, don’t get me wrong ... but the community needs to be involved. The public’s not here. This is all administration.”

Several attendees complained of an administration that seemed to care for certain schools but “not all schools equally.” Others wanted to see better and more transparent communication between school system administrators and schools and parents.

“They need to listen and respond,” one attendee said.

“They need to bring us together as a district – no more us against them,” said another.

The Smithfield Middle School table wanted to see improvements to facilities so that staff, parents and students could have pride in a school in good condition.

“The inequities (between schools) are bad,” one attendee said.

At the end of the meeting, the superintendent asked attendees for feedback on how to improve future work sessions. The most common response was that the school system should promote such meetings and open them to the public.

Renfrow said his office invited various groups to the discussions and wasn’t “turning anyone away.”

The superintendent said the school system would generate a report after completing all of the Kitchen Table Conversations, with a goal of shaping the school’s direction going forward.

“If we just listen to it and don’t act on it, then we’ve wasted your time,” Renfrow said. “This is that first step that’s going to lead to action. We want to hear what you have to say ... what the community has to say. Maybe we need to develop the process so we can get input from the community.”

Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett

Still to come

Here are the remaining kitchen table conversations in Johnston County:

April 4 – at Cleveland High for the following schools: Cleveland Middle, Cleveland Elementary, Dixon Road Elementary and and Cleveland High School.

April 7 – at North Johnston High for the following schools: North Johnston Middle, Glendale-Kenly Elementary, Micro-Pine Level Elementary and North Johnston High School.

April 11 – at Princeton High for Princeton Elementary, Princeton High, Princeton Middle, South Campus Middle, South Campus High, Johnston County Early College Academy and Johnston Middle College High.

April 12 – at South Johnston High for the following schools: Meadow School, Benson Elementary, Benson Middle, Four Oaks Elementary, Four Oaks Middle and South Johnston High.

April 14 – at West Johnston High for the following schools: Polenta Elementary, McGee’s Crossroads Elementary, McGee’s Crossroads Middle, West View Elementary and West Johnston High.