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Leader staff writer
Student safety turned out to be the main concern voiced at a public forum Sunday afternoon on the merits of Jacksonville’s gender-specific middle schools. About 50 people attended the two-hour meeting hosted by the Jacksonville NAACP at the Jacksonville Boys Middle School.
No one attending disputed gains in test scores since the sex-segregated schools opened in fall 2005. More on people’s minds were concerns about bullying and inadequate adult supervision in the halls, on the playgrounds, and in the cafeteria at both the boys and girls middle schools.
After the meeting, Jacksonville NAACP chapter president Ivory Tillman said that the NAACP would decide at its July 13 general meeting what its formal position would be. A likely next step for the NAACP would be asking the school district for security monitors to control disruptive and sometimes violent behavior that threatens safety of students at the middle schools.
Mike Nellums, principal of the Jacksonville Boys Middle School, told the group that school patrons need to join him in pushing the district for more monitors. Nellums said that he has a reputation in the community for dealing proactively with behavior problems, but that to do so, parents and students must come forward with information about bullying.
“We can’t do anything about something we know nothing about,” he said.
Several parents complained about their boys being bullied while students at Jacksonville Boys Middle School. Two who did not want to be identified said that the school administration had done little to remedy the problems. Others were more supportive.
Bill Hansen, the father of twin boys who just graduated from the boys school, lauded Nellums and his staff for “handling complaints quickly and professionally.” However, Hansen, who is white, said that his sons had been victims of repeated bullying by blacks. He believed his sons were targeted because they were white.
“That was a big hill for them to climb because I raised them to not be sexist or racist, to believe everybody is equal, but they were assaulted at every turn,” he said. “They encountered a lot of stress at the school, were treated in ways that are not allowed out in society, in the workplace.”
Hansen said that if the same problems persist for his boys at Jacksonville High School, he will school them elsewhere. He predicted other whites will leave the schools for the same reason.
Another father, Rizzelle Aa-ron, who is black, related how his son had been bullied by gang members off school grounds. He told the group that adults are oblivious to the gang system of intimidation and retaliation that keeps students silent. Gang members are not afraid to direct aggression at adults either, he said, so parents volunteering as hall monitors is not a reasonable solution.
“One is likely to get a black eye,” he said. “We need different ways to deal with that problem in our schools.”
Tillman said that the impetus for his calling the meeting, after consulting with the chapter’s executive committee, was a June 21 article in The Leader that described a disagreement at the last Pulaski County Special School Board meeting between Jacksonville boys middle principal Mike Nellums and school board member Bill Vasquez about gender-specific schools.
Vasquez is strongly against separate schools for boys and girls. At the June board meeting, Vasquez tried to get the board to suspend the rules and open discussions about the issue. This was the last board meeting where such changes could be made for the next school year, according to Vasquez, and the administration had refused his request to place the issue on the agenda.
His motion to suspend the rules and discuss the issues of single-gender education and combining the two existing schools failed four to two, with board president Charlie Wood voting with him.
Tillman invited Nellums, Vasquez, and Kim Forrest, principal of the Jacksonville Girls Middle School to the Sunday meeting, so that all three could express their views in a public forum, citizens could also speak their minds, and then the NAACP would decide its next step in dealing with the controversy.
On Monday Vasquez apologized for not attending, but said he was on vacation and that he had explained to Tillman that he “had prior commitments.” Vasquez said that he does not foresee taking part in any future public meetings about the matter, because the opportunity has passed, at least for now, for the district to merge the two middle schools.
“There is no desire on the part of the board or the district to reconfigure the schools, so there is nothing to discuss,” Vasquez said. “It is a moot point.”
Vasquez claims a large number of Jacksonville parents have removed their children from the two schools because they are against separate schools for boys and girls. He says Nellums and Forrest are doing a poor job and wants them “transferred” to other posts in the district.
Nellums maintains that Jack-sonville schools, and the gender-specific middle schools especially, have been unfairly singled out as the main contributors to declining enrollment that is occurring across the entire district. He noted that seven other Jacksonville area schools have lost students, but so has Mills High School, a school which has a national reputation for academic excellence but has lost 71 students nonetheless.
As for academic gains, no one at the meeting Sunday disputed that test scores have improved since the boys and girls were put in separate schools for the 2005-2006 school year.
Nellums contends that five years’ of test-score data are needed to really know what impact the new arrangement is having on student achievement.
The percentages of students at the two schools scoring proficient or above in math and literacy are still the lowest among all district middle schools, but Nellums argues that before passing judgment, overall percentage gains and socioeconomic factors need to be considered. Twenty percent of the boys schools students are classified as “special needs,” 65 percent come from single-parent families, and 73 percent are on the free or reduced-price lunch program.
“You can’t compare between an apple and a walnut,” he said. “You are talking about totally different student populations when you compare us with Maumelle or Robinson.”
Others, including Jeanie Till-man and Forrest, speculated that gains might have been larger if the district had not fallen down on its promise of several years ago to train teachers about the different learning styles of boys and girls. Forrest said taking boys out of the classroom markedly changes the dynamic for girls – mainly in positive ways. With boys present, girls are often shy about answering a teacher’s questions, for fear of embarrassment. Now, girls often speak up and are willing to admit in class when they need a little tutoring; others now will offer help.
“With the boys, they don’t want to look stupid, but without the boys, the girls support one another, take care of one another, instead of poking fun,” Forrest said. She maintained most students at her school liked the all-girl classes. Recent girls school graduate Jessica Moser, who was at the meeting with her mother and brother, agreed.
“I thought it made a great environment for learning. I loved it,” she said.
Nellums did not deny that bullying is occurring at the boys middle school, but argued that the incidence is no greater than anyplace else where there is such a concentration of young males. He faulted the school district administration for failing to provide the school with security personnel to keep the lid on behavior problems.
Forrest said the shortage of monitors was the result of the teachers union negotiating re-lease of teachers from “doing duty” as monitors one week a month in the cafeteria and halls and after school as buses load.
Teachers now have the option of working as monitors with extra pay. Maintaining order is difficult even though part-time workers fill the gap.
Nellums said a new school district would not automatically wash away the complex problems that trouble Jacksonville.
“You need to start preparing for your own school district and have a plan in place for kids who are struggling,” he said.
“You will continue to lose kids until you get your own district, and then you might still lose them. Meanwhile we have to be concerned about educating them,” he added.