It was one of the things that stood out about Superintendent LaShakia Moore‘s already honed community connections at Wednesday evening’s town hall with the Bunnell community, and specifically the Black, South Bunnell community, in the wake of the segregated assemblies at the elementary school there: When it came time for questions from a Carver Center audience of about 110, Moore knew almost every person who spoke by name.
She wasn’t just preaching about needing to break down what she called a persistent “disconnect” between the school district and the community. She was breaking it down in front of their eyes. Her presence there–comfortably commanding, but more “necessary,” in her word–reflected a willingness to engage on residents’ turf and on their terms rather than from behind ramparts of bureaucracy and policy jargon, or even from behind the narrow bounds of email.
“I think it’s necessary. I think it’s these are conversations that we have to have,” Moore said afterward, answering two reporters’ questions from the emptying middle of the Carver Gym, like a coach after a game tat felt like a turning point. “We hear a lot about what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right. But those conversations are usually in forums that we don’t get a chance to go back and forth. We don’t get to have a dialogue. And so someone made a comment that I’m glad that we’re doing this because now you can respond. Most times when we’re hearing things, we’re hearing them through maybe some type of online interaction, maybe we’re hearing this through one individual family, or we’re hearing it through a board meeting. But in those board meetings, we can’t respond directly there. I think that people want an opportunity to ask questions and get a response immediately. And so that’s what tonight is about.”
Of course the segregated assemblies prompted the immediate need for the town hall, though Moore told the audience that she would have held it, and will hold many more, regardless: the scandal at Bunnell Elementary added urgency, but it alone wasn’t the determining factor for interactions Moore said have been needed long before.
So yes, there were discussions about the segregated assemblies at Wednesday’s town hall–those assemblies where exclusively Black 4th and 5th graders were branded as a “problem” because of their low test scores, where they were lumped together regardless of achievement, where white and other non-Black low-achievers were not similarly addressed, where Black students were told they’d go to jail or die early if they didn’t perform.
But that wasn’t the main concern either of Moore or of the audience (which was made up far more of women than men, and was substantially Black). The subject came up twice in the 90-minute town hall. The first time, a woman asked what had been done in response to what she called “the incident.” Moore explained: counseling, conferences with parents, facilitating moving to a different school, if that’s what parents wanted.
The second time, the often bigoted Charlene Cothran (the self-styled reformed lesbian who has openly insulted LGBTQ students and their parents at board meetings) described the scandal as manufactured outrage and demanded that Donelle Evensen, the principal at the time, be reinstated. (Evensen resigned ahead of the revelations of an internal investigation that showed her oversight to have been less than rigorous. See: “Fractured Leadership: Few Questions Asked, Fewer Concerns Raised Ahead of Segregated Assemblies, Investigation Reveals.”)
The statement–and the demand–prompted Moore’s strongest statement of the night: “I cannot respond just to outrage. I have to respond to what is right and what is wrong.” Evensen’s name was not mentioned, but she said she has High regard” for her. “Someone that I have worked with and worked alongside, someone that I have loved as a person and as a member of this community and as a member of Flagler schools. But I can’t be directed by outrage. I have to be directed by what’s right and what’s wrong.” What did happen, she said, was “not appropriate for the students, and is not something we can just support. Now, you can criticize me on what my response to that was, like say that this person should be reinstated.” But, Moore said, “My response is never based on what people are saying. You can love me, and my response is going to be the same. I’m going to do what’s best for the students and the district. You can hate me, and my response is going to be the same.”
The evening had been prefaced with a “block party” featuring clubs, education and social services and employment opportunities in the district (there were few takers, the human resources director said), at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Bunnell Elementary. The tables were arranged around the gym, the pouring rain outside perhaps limiting the number of people who might have turned up, though by 5:30 p.m. the parking lot was overflowing.
Moore then framed her own portion of the evening with the “Flagler Forward” theme she’s branded on the new school year. Her purpose at Carver was to have “an opportunity for us as a community to come together and have a conversation about education.” It was very general and it did not get much more specific than that, with some sloganeering along the way–making parents and community members proud of their district, breaking down walls, voicing concerns.
But there was a recurring theme behind’s Moore approach. She touched on it in her introduction and in many of her answers: With schools taking on far more responsibilities than they can handle, from tending to the social and economic needs of families, teachers have to be given room to teach–to the standards, Moore stressed–without worrying about those concerns. Students have their own responsibilities, as do parents, to be more involved. “It’s really making room for our teachers to do what they’re supposed to be doing, which is teaching,” Moore said. “You as a parent should not have to re-teach your child at home.”
It’s one of the oldest mantras of education, and it did not get more specific, though the challenge Moore faces was made clear when Carl Jones, who leads the district’s African American Mentor Program, asked who in the audience had heard of the program. Barely a few hands went up. “That’s unacceptable,” Jones said, even as members of the audience asked how they could get involved.
He was nevertheless impressed by the tenor of the evening. “This is the start of something good,” he said after the town hall, “because whenever you start talking about the things that are affecting the community and the school, that’s a good conversation. So I think it went well. I’m looking forward to the next events that we have.” Moore, he said, “is doing a great job opening herself up to the community. You got to do it. In order to to make our education system be more successful, you have to have that back and forth with the community, specifically the parents.”
At times the conversation during the town hall touched on the broader challenges that may have explained why parents seem less involved than they actually are, as when Shakia Brown, an educator for 10 years in Volusia and Duval counties who just started teaching American history at FPC, pointed out that other than government jobs in the county, people who don;t want to work at service jobs have to travel out of Flagler, reducing their abilities to be engaged. For others, there’s no public transportation. For others, as in Bunnell, they face the challenges of food deserts. “There’s economic things they’re fighting before they even get to the schools,” Brown said in a rare moment of blunt realism. “This is something we haven’t discussed in years. Years.” Brown had heard the same conversations 20 years ago, when she was in school: she grew up locally.
Moore deferred to Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin, but Alfin responded only with more generalities about how “public safety and the success of children is the definition of quality of life.” No one in the audience would disagree. But the question was how to get there.
Others asked more pragmatic questions, such as why it was so difficult to volunteer in classrooms (the district has to be extremely careful about who it lets into classrooms, Moore said) and how to find out when schools conduct their standardized testing, how many vacant teaching positions there are (13 core classes without a permanent teacher right now), and how to get the district’s success stories told. Moore said the “noise” on social media reverberates louder in Flagler, being a smaller county, and may be playing a role in discouraging teachers from applying here, even though regionally, the district offers high pay.
“I am by no means saying don’t share your thoughts and opinions on social media. But if the only thing they’re hearing is negative stuff, then why would I want to come work here?” Moore asked.
It was one of the evening’s ironies that one of the more engaged parents in the district–Carmen Stanford, who runs the high-traffic Flagler Parents Facebook page–asked what the district’s expectations of parents are. “Ask questions. It’s your child. You’re their first advocate. Ask questions,” Moore said.
School Board Chair Cheryl Massaro was one of only two board members who showed up (Will Furry was the other). She called it a “wonderful evening” as she was preparing to leave. “That’s what I believe it really is all about. And you know what? Teachers are preaching to the choir here. These are the good people who want to be involved and maintain the schools and make them grow and headed in the right direction.” She saw the evening as bridge-building: “I think we’ve had bridges but they’ve been smaller bridges. This is a bigger bridge where she’s getting the entire staff on board, and all the employees on board. And that’s a huge bridge, as opposed to individual schools. It’s the district, and that we have not seen that in my 22 years here. So I think that’s a big difference. It’s a good thing.”