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DON PETERSEN | Special to The Roanoke Times
Roundhill Elementary School teachers sport their slogans at the Roanoke City Public School Convocation at the Roanoke Civic Center on Monday.
Monday, August 19, 2013
There are certain experiences that make you feel especially good about the community you live in. Recently, I have experienced two of them.
On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 11, I participated in an Interfaith Service of Prayer and Blessing of the Roanoke City Public School System at Patrick Henry High School’s auditorium. The interfaith service bulletin listed 49 congregations working together to have a positive impact on the children and families of 11 elementary schools by offering tutoring and mentoring, conducting school supply drives, even sending food home on weekends for kids who might otherwise be deprived.
The following Monday, I attended the opening convocation for the Roanoke City Public Schools’ 2013-14 school year at the Roanoke Civic Center. The theme was “You Can Make a Difference.” Filling the auditorium was a staff of 2,500 teachers, administrators, school board members, elected officials and community leaders whose goal it is to make a difference in the lives of 13,000 Roanoke children and their families.
School Board Chairman Todd Putney spoke about the tremendous gains made by RCPS in recent years. He noted that the on-time graduation rate has increased from 59 percent in 2008 to 80 percent this year and that the number of students who received industry certifications had increased from 79 to 700 in five years. The number of college-level Advanced Placement exams taken increased from 429 to 1,905 (plus 340 percent) in the last five years. He noted the rebuilding of two high schools and associated facilities and the renovation of five other schools. Putney announced that RCPS had won a $700,000 state award that will positively impact a number of elementary schools.
Prior to Putney’s remarks, we had been led in the Pledge of Allegiance by Wasena Elementary School student Marcella Banks. The pledge closed as it always does, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Of late, we have heard a great deal about liberty and our individual freedoms, often construed to mean that each is to be responsible only for himself. Yet, as the pledge indicates, the themes of fair play, equal opportunity and justice are also what this country is about.
There is no greater example of institutional justice than our public school system that offers to every child, whatever his condition of life, an opportunity to gain the skills necessary to achieve.
There is always a place for criticism and calls for accountability. Indeed, public schools, as the chairman suggested, may represent “the most accountable area of all of government, with scrutiny by federal, state and local oversight, federal and state testing standards and performance measures” and public expectations.
What are less acceptable are attempts to destroy the public school system with schemes to privatize public education or starve it by withdrawing public financial support. High praise for Roanoke City Council, whose public education funding has increased by $12 million a year at the same time the commonwealth of Virginia has decreased its support by more than $7 million annually.
We heard from five elementary school principals telling stories of how teachers and staff in their schools had made a difference in the lives of children who faced homelessness, health care issues, loss of a parent through cancer, physical or emotional disabilities and abject poverty. The individual stories, the passion in their voices, the emotion on their faces and the resolve in their words spoke volumes of their commitment for the children in our schools.
Superintendent Rita Bishop commented, “The hallmark of a great civilization is how it treats its children.” Any public or private institution is governed by its norms, its standards, its values. Roanoke City Public Schools — led by a remarkable school board of concerned citizens, a visionary superintendent with a passion for kids and an incredible staff — is creating a culture of excellence, compassion and accountability that should be championed by all of us.
As I witnessed the beginning of another school year, I thought to myself that the work of the public schools is faith in action. As the Prophet Micah said, what is required of us is above all that we do justice, be compassionate toward others and put others first. The success of RCPS is the major determinant of future economic growth in this great city.
We either invest in our children, all our children, or we pay a greater price later with a less skilled workforce, higher crime and higher incarceration rates. We all might keep that in mind as we evaluate the two candidates for governor.
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