Several community members gathered to discuss early childhood education and inequality issues within the Conway School District during a Juneteenth celebration event held Saturday at the Greater Pleasant Branch Baptist Church.
Faulkner County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Franklin Holbrook spearheaded the discussion and encouraged attendees to get involved not only in Saturday's conversation but also within their community.
"The reason we're here is to have a great conversation on what we can do in this community," he said, noting residents need to take ownership of the inequality issues at large locally and work to better the school district.
Among the day's speakers were CSD Personnel Director Karen Lasker and Superintendent Greg Murry.
The two addressed the school's need for more recruitment as far as African-American instructors and administrators employed in the district as well as the school's efforts to keep its students safer.
Of the district's 10,001 students, 2,863 (29 percent) of those are African-American students.
Lasker said the district's percentage of African-American faculty "is not as well represented," noting that 60 of the school's 1,171 licensed educators are African-American and that the district has 11 licensed African-American administrators.
"The disparity between our teachers and our students is not as well represented," she said. "That's less than 10 percent, although that's higher than it was. We're gradually looking up, but we still have a lot of work to do."
As she spoke to the group that took part in Saturday's discussion, Lasker also addressed some myths about the school district regarding hiring policies and its need to increase diversity among faculty.
Lasker said a rumor floating about that the CSD does not hire blacks "is absolutely not true."
She also said she wanted to address a complaint about the school being too difficult to get into.
"I hear about how hard it is to get hired in the Conway School District. That's very true," she said. "That's a standard we've set for ourselves and we will not lower that standard."
Anyone who applies in the CSD without a standardized license will not be considered to teach children in the district.
"You can't get hired without a standardized license. That's not a myth, that's our policy," she said, adding that administrators are looking to hire faculty that will be involved in the district for the long run. "We want to make sure they have everything they need before going before our children. We're looking for the long term. We want someone who is going to be here for 30 years, not two or three."
As far as addressing the need for more African-American instructors, the issue needs to start at the roots, Lasker said.
By talking to children at a young age and pushing them to do their best when they're young, she said they will be more likely to be career oriented. Skill such as creating resumes and filling out job applications need to be explained and taught early on, she said.
Having a diverse faculty before the school's children will help inspire Conway youth to also become educators, Murry said.
"We've got to have people in front of our kids that look like them to inspire these kids to want to me like them," he said. "I firmly believe that."
Former Education Assistant Commissioner National Trainer and educational advisor Charity Fleming Smith also spoke during Saturday's discussion, comparing how African-American students' scores compare to others in their district and also addressing the need to educate these students more from home.
Forming relationships with children and taking the time to reach with your children before they are enrolled in school will greatly affect their academic careers, she said.
"You have to believe in all kids," she said, noting parents can have a lasting impact on their children and their scholastic performance.
Superintendent Murry also spoke on the importance of teaching young children the value of reading to broaden their ideas and values regarding their education.
"You need to sit down and read with your kids," he said. "Reading has to be important on a family level."
Along with making strides toward education improvements and racial diversity in the CSD, the district is also working to improve safety.
Murry said the district is working to install a second set of doors at the entrance of each of the school's buildings to increase safety. This would provide a barrier between the entrance and gaining access to the classrooms. After walking through the front doors, visitors would be stopped at the front office and not be allowed further into the building without meeting with an administrator and being allowed past the second set of doors.
Other safety steps include adding bullet-proof films to each of the school's exterior windows and one day installing high-security doors to each of the district's classrooms.
Saturday's discussion also addressed and compared the ranks of children within the district. The Log Cabin Democrat will provide coverage of this portion of Saturday's discussion in Wednesday's edition.