One by one, the children, some standing no taller than the podium, walked to the front of the Decatur church and questioned the city’s educational, law enforcement and outreach leaders. They asked about the area’s academic performance, about how to interact with the police and about resources for peers bullied for wearing the same clothes every day.
Dubbed “Character, Courage and Commitment: A Community Conversation Connecting with our Children,” the program at St. James CP Church broke down the barriers between the students, their guardians and the community leaders as participants tackled issues facing the community and the country.
“We help our young people develop character. If we see a lot of young people and we see them not displaying good character, I guarantee you, somewhere down the road, an adult didn’t do something right,” said Bruce Jones, director of Decatur Youth Services and moderator of the event. “That’s where we, as a community, need to step up and set things right.”
When the children asked how Decatur City Schools’ students performed compared to the state and broken down by race, Superintendent Michael Douglas presented the district’s numbers on growth — how many students progressed a full academic year — and proficiency — how many students perform on grade level.
The growth data for third to eighth graders showed an increase from 51% in 2018 to 58% in 2019 in reading and from 57% in 2018 to 65% in 2019 in math.
“As good as growth looks, in proficiency we are just barely moving the needle,” Douglas said. “The first data we get is in the third grade. … Even though you can grow a child a full year from here on out, if they come in behind, they’re still behind.”
From 2018 to 2019, the percent of black children proficient in reading increased from 27 to 28, compared to their white counterparts, which increased from 62 to 66. In math, the percent of black children proficient held steady at 33 while the numbers for the white students rose from 64 to 67.
“There is a huge disparity between how a white kid performs and a black and brown kid. That’s what the numbers reflect,” Douglas said. “One of the key pieces we are missing is parental involvement.”
As an example, Douglas pointed to the number of students participating in a summer school program available to all the district’s Title 1 schools. Currently 20 students are attending the program.
“Let’s say we remove the different excuses we use sometimes in our black community — it’s the white people, it’s racism, it’s inequality, that’s why our kids are failing," Jones said. "Let’s remove that for a minute and ask ourselves what can we do now. What can we do to change those statistics?”
Douglas also challenged adults to read to their children every day from birth to kindergarten — a time when 95% of the brain is developed — and he challenged students to take an active role in their education.
“Your education is your ticket to anything you want to do and don’t let anybody — no teacher, no superintendent, no family member — tell you you can’t do something,” Douglas said.
When the students asked about how to interact with law enforcement, Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen talked about the responsibilities of the citizens and the department and the card he requires every officer to carry.
The size of a business card, the card reminds the officers to have a servant’s heart, to be responsive, to be proactive, to be a problem solver, to be resourceful and to be compassionate.
“What I tell them in the very beginning is to treat everybody the way that you want to be treated, the old golden rule, that’s what I teach,” Allen said.
When the students asked how to help a friend unable to afford new clothes, Larry Franks, executive director of First Priority of Greater Decatur, talked about Clothe Our Kids, a nonprofit organization that distributes clothes to children in need.
Since its founding in August 2016, Clothe Our Kids has distributed 2,000 bags to children in Morgan and Lawrence counties. Each bag contains six tops, four pants or shorts depending on the season, a pair of shoes, a new pack of socks, a new pack of underwear, a coat in the winter and a hygiene kit.
“Our goal is to send them to school with confidence. A lot of times, that changes their attitude to school, to administrators and teachers. It makes them feel like they are like everyone else,” Franks said.
To make sure the recipients remain anonymous, teachers, school administrators and child advocates submit requests online for a child. The request includes questions about the child’s size, grade and gender, but not the name.
During the school year, the organization distributes 50 to 60 bags of clothing a week to children, from newborn to 12th grade.
The program on Wednesday night stemmed from an Alabama Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America event held in April in honor of the church’s oldest member, 104-year-old Mother Marie McDade. During the event, organizers asked the young attendees about their concerns.
“We asked them, ‘What’s something you would like to say to your parents if you knew you would not be in trouble for asking the question?’ These young people gave us some things to think about. They asked some very serious questions,” said Venessa Edmonds, organizer of the “Character, Courage and Commitment” event.
The Athens-based Alabama Fork CPCA partnered with Decatur’s St. James CPCA to hold the community conversation.
About 50 people attended the program, which featured Allen, Douglas, Franks, Austin High principal Melissa Scott, Jernessa Jones, Monique Hobbs, Danielle Barnes and Venet Roberts, who was joined by her three sons, students at Leon Sheffield Elementary School.
“We can solve a lot of these problems, but we’ve got to make more of an effort guys,” Bruce Jones said. “I know I’m preaching to the choir, but how do we make sure the ones that need to be here that need this information get this information? That’s got to be our next task.”