By Joel Hall
Over the weekend, the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association gathered parents, school board members, elected officials, and other concerned citizens to discuss how to proceed in the wake of the county schools' accreditation crisis.
Since Feb. 15, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools recommended that the school district be stripped of its accreditation -- unless certain requirements are met by Sept. 1 -- much of the community's focus has been on replacing the current members of the school board.
The weekend meeting, however, focused on educating the public and challenging the community to take a stand in the accreditation fight through personal involvement, such as attending and taking an active role in community meetings, getting involved in Parent Teacher Association activities and staying vigilant about making sure community leaders act in the best interests of those they represent.
Karolen Dowdell, education committee chair of the homeowners' organization, facilitated the discussion at the National Archives in Morrow. In front of a packed room of nearly 250 people, Dowdell recalled incidents from her youth, involving the Duval County, Florida school system, which lost its accreditation.
"I am a victim of a school system that lost its accreditation," said Dowdell, stressing that several of the recommendations made in the SACS report are dependent on better communication and involvement among community residents. "One of the reasons that we lost it is because the community was not involved.
"The SACS report has to be met, regardless of whether we have a board or not, regardless of whether we have a superintendent or not," Dowdell continued. "It's not going away ... we need to keep our eyes on the prize."
The organization's co-founder, Synamon Baldwin, said that until now, many citizens have expressed anger, but not a true commitment to making the school system better.
Baldwin described last Monday's school board meeting, in which thousands of concerned residents crowded into the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, as "the most awful display of a public forum that I have ever seen."
She added that many people left immediately after they finished venting their own personal frustrations. "We do not have the right to stand up and holler at folks when we have not yet done what we are supposed to do," said Baldwin. "We are most guilty ... "
"For the most part," added State Rep. Wade Starr, echoing Baldwin's sentiments, "the large majority of us are civicly asleep.
"Every once in a while, something wakes us up ... and we wake up mad," said Starr (D-Fayetteville). "You have a right to be angry, but you have to confront your anger ... you have to hold yourselves accountable."
"Everybody in this room has the tools to fix this," said State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale). "If we don't come together as a unified front ... we will be as fragmented as the school board."
In a phone interview Saturday, Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, said that while only three weeks have passed since his agency announced its recommendation, he is confident Clayton County Shools can retain its accreditation, if the community comes together and seeks outside expertise.
"Community involvement is vitally important for the school system to move forward and repair itself," said Elgart. "The Sept. 1 date was picked with the nine recommendations in mind. Our professional belief is that this is achievable. It will take the community and the support of outside agencies to help the school system through this."
Tasha Mosley, an assistant solicitor at the Henry County Solicitor's Office and a Jonesboro High School mock trial coach, said citizens and parents need to mobilize and get involved well before the Sept. 1 deadline. She said Saturday's meeting was "a step in the right direction.
"Hopefully, this will motivate people to [keep] going forward," said Mosley. "They have to come out to the polls, they have to get educated. If we keep taking these baby steps, we'll be okay."