Forum at S.W. Snowden voices school, community concerns

Published 7:57 pm Thursday, June 20, 2019

AURORA — The middle school grades at S.W. Snowden will not be moved to Southside High School in the coming school year, according to Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman.

This announcement was the first of many topics addressed during a well-attended community forum held at S.W. Snowden Elementary School on Tuesday evening. Over the course of the forum, community members and school district leaders engaged in a dialogue that lasted more than two hours, with the primary question being how to improve academic performance at Snowden, which has been ranked as “low-performing” by the state for the past five years.

“Part of the concern is at Snowden Elementary School what occurs on a day-to-day basis and what the end result looks like are not aligned,” Cheeseman said. “You have incredible efforts from students, faculty, staff and administration, but at the end of the day, your performance is low. That’s where we need to meet together on what it looks like to change the performance of these kids.”

Underlying that question of academic success, however, were other concerns, each voiced by community members. These included the perceived flight of students from Snowden to Pamlico County, the hurdles students face in their home lives, transportation, questions of racial fairness, access to high-speed internet and a perceived neglect of people living in Aurora and on the south side of the Pamlico River.

One speaker, Bishop Robert Brown, who had served as a coach and teacher at Snowden, expressed concerns that S.W. Snowden does not receive the same attention as other schools in the district. Looking at the teachers that have come through the school, Brown lamented the loss of high-quality educators at the school and why a busload of kids leaves Aurora every day for Pamlico County.

“It starts with you guys making sure we get qualified teachers,” Brown told the board. “That’s one of the problems that we’ve had.”

Another speaker, Glenoria Jennette, who graduated from Aurora High School and had seven children pass through Snowden, encourages the BOE to get to the root of the problem, and that the Aurora Schools always seemed to be the first to come up when topics like school closures came up.

“What money you have, use it to the good of the people who are here,” Jennette said. “When people who are here make progress, others will see that progress and they may come back to our school. I think it’s as simple as that to build up our school. Instead of moving our students to where the extracurriculars are, bring the extracurriculars here.”

Other suggestions brought up by speakers at the forum included bringing back the afterschool program at S.W. Snowden, improving communication with parents, diversifying and retaining quality staff, increasing elective opportunities and finding ways to providing for students’ needs outside of school.

“The mother might have issues, the father might be absent, they have no internet, they’re isolated, they get here at 10 minutes to six — try to motivate her,” one speaker said.

Another point, brought up by Jennette, was that the school’s students are predominantly African-American, and that decisions made on changes at the school should take that into account. Another speaker reminded the board that S.W. Snowden, the man for whom the school was named, was a black school administrator who left a legacy in Aurora. Cheeseman agreed with both speakers that the cultural heritage of Aurora has to be respected, and that the school system should look for ways to engage these students in ways that are relevant to them.

For both the community and the board of education, a large part of building success at Snowden will involve community involvement. Multiple speakers and the board encouraged parents to show up and be involved at meetings, and board members were challenged to come and visit Snowden regularly.

Cheeseman, in concluding remarks, assured the community that the school system would be looking at programs, staffing and funding possibilities to help lift students up in their academics. In turn, he challenged those in the gym to keep the same energy they had on Tuesday when students return to school in August. The superintendent went on to say that the Board of Education would hold another forum in the fall.

From the turnout at this week’s forum, one speaker, Ken Adams, made a point that resonated — “Look around and you’ll see, man, people care.” For Beaufort County Schools, the question remains how to channel that caring to the betterment of Snowden’s students.