Circling around the district’s issues

Lawrence schools superintendent holds two community meetings

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The need for increased communication, the shift of kindergarteners to the Lawrence Primary School at the Number Two School from the Early Childhood Center at the Number Four School and school bus safety were the primary topics of the second of two Community Circle meetings hosted by District Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen on July 25.

Thursday’s nighttime gathering included 14 people — 11 parents and three district sixth-grade teachers, two who are officers of the Lawrence Teachers Association. Participants sat in a circle facing each based on the community circle concept promoted by Communities for Restorative Justice, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that seeks alternative ideas across the criminal justice system. There was a July 23 morning meeting that only two people attended, Pedersen said.

Circle guidelines includes listening to what others say; not interrupting the speaker; respecting others (including body language); and understanding that everyone are valued members of the group and the goal is to learn.

“The forum allowed everyone to speak,” said Pedersen, who explained that the community circle is an expanded version of what a previous superintendent, Dr. John Fitzsimons, had with his “key communicators” that met once a month with only two or three people. “This is new to us and we’ll try it,” she added.

Worried about the safety of the students on the bus, the discussion addressed the need for more matrons. “I’m concerned that the children can get rowdy and the driver looks stressed,” said Jamila Hercules, an Inwood resident, who along with her husband, Alfredo, have two girls, one heading into second grade and the other into kindergarten. “I can see where the bus drivers would have a difficult time handing the kids and driving,” Alfredo said.

Woodmere resident Matthew Russo said there should be security cameras on the buses. The idea floated four years ago but not implemented because state law prohibits the district from installing equipment on non-district property.

Jose Serrano, a Lawrence resident and district graduate, cited his concern over what be believes is a lack of transparency. “There is a problem with communication,” he said. “It feels like we don’t get answers.” He pointed to the decision on moving the kindergarten as an example. “We are voicing an opinion on a decision already made.”

Pedersen took responsibility for the decision and explained that it’s the educational leaders who decide such things, not the Board of Education. “The Number Four School is a high-traffic area where there are a lot of meetings for special education,” she said, with an eye to increase the building’s security. “We also did the research on what kindergarten has become and the demands are very different.” It was noted that a $202,000 playground will be installed at the Number Two School.

When Serrano said: “Why not ask the parents,” before such a decision is made, Pedersen responded, “That is a valid question.”

Yousline LaBlanc, a North Woodmere resident with two boys in the district — a high sophomore and an eighth-grader — said that learning what is happening is important to her. “I look for the information,” she said, “I want to know what is going on for the sake of my children.”

Pedersen said she might hold another Community Circle in the fall. The next Board of Education meeting is Aug. 6 at 8 p.m., in the high school auditorium.