Partcipation unsatisfactory: Parental involvement has been lacking at Marie G. Davis

When Marie G. Davis Middle School teachers needed school supplies, office products giant Boise Cascade Corp. came through, dropping off a truckload of binders, paper and markers.

When the school’s eighth-graders needed help learning basic computer skills to pass a mandatory state test, Wachovia employees scheduled tutoring sessions to get kids up to speed.

But when the Marie G. Davis parent-teacher-student association wanted several hundred parents to stay for a meeting scheduled right after a boys’ basketball game, only a handful hung out.

All the other parents left

That’s the kind of response Marie G. Davis has generated all year: generous help from businesses and community groups, but sparse attention from most of the school’s own parents.

"Whenever I need parents, I can get them. But when we do a parent-teacher meeting without children performing, (they’re) nonexistent," Principal Terry Cline said.

Some say that’s to be expected, as many in the surrounding community still don’t embrace Marie G. Davis as their neighborhood school.

The school had a much different identity during the past decade — as a high-achieving magnet school drawing a diverse student body from throughout Mecklenburg County.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new student Marie G. Davis Middle School assignment plan, launched in August, changed Marie G. Davis into a community school attended by children from low-income surrounding communities. It was the least-picked school in last year’s lottery.

Cline hopes plans to build a new, $20 million school campus by August 2005 will help draw in more parents.

"The Marie G. Davis of the last (10) years was not a community-Marie G. Davis, so the parents didn’t feel welcome here," Cline said. "They’re intimidated by the building."

Parents’ challenges

Marie G. Davis Middle and high schools Charlotte NC traditionally struggle to draw the same level of parent involvement as elementary schools, where parents are usually more active.Drawing parents in is an even harder task at Marie G. Davis, where most parents face household challenges. According to the 2000 Census data for the school’s attendance zone, about three-fourths of the children are from single-family homes. The median household income is $25,353, only half the county average.

Jennifer Perkins-Randolph, the PTSA president, felt "disillusioned" at the school’s first parents-teachers meeting when she tried to coax parents to join committees. When no one volunteered, she realized that the 15 or so people in the room were all teachers — "not one parent showed up."

But she doesn’t believe that’s all due to indifference. The PTSA didn’t even form until December, much later than other schools, as Principal Cline tackled discipline and academic issues first. That hindered getting the word out.

Community involvement, especially from businesses, has been another story. Some of that attention isn’t just by chance: School district officials intentionally direct some of that corporate attention to Marie G. Davis. Schools deemed to be needier than others, such as Marie G. Davis, get help first when general offers come in from companies that want to donate supplies.

Local groups are directly involved with the school, like Seigle Avenue Partners, an organization that provides programs for children in the center-city Piedmont Courts and Belmont communities. The group provides transportation to Marie G. Davis for parents who attend a weekly after-school computer class run by the school.

Others, such as Wachovia, sought out Marie G. Davis in particular to help. Although the school took the first step in contacting the bank, managers there already knew about the school and how it would change under the choice plan.

Frederick Byron, a systems developer at Wachovia, has tutored students since February, helping them learn how to change fonts or call up spreadsheets on computers — skills required on the state’s computer test.

"Kids coming from more affluent families probably have computers at home," Byron said. "These students need (help) more."

Will new school help?

Marie G. Davis middle school Mecklenburg and parent leaders have seen some encouraging signs of parental involvement.

Nearly 75 parents attended a Southside Homes residents’ meeting held at the complex and devoted to student assignment, according to PTSA member Velma Jones. And Perkins-Randolph said the PTSA raised $1,200 in dues this year, charging $4 per student, teacher and parent.

Cline hopes that as architects develop sketches of the new, 1,200-seat school, more parents and community members will feel a sense of ownership when the older building is replaced.

Perkins-Randolph already knows she’ll be PTSA president again next year, giving her time to plan ways to draw parents in at the start of the school year.

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