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Retired educator: Prioritize student diversity

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SMITHFIELD — A retired Johnston County educator reminded school board members of diversity’s importance last week.

Mary Nell Ferguson, a teacher for 44 years and Cleveland Elementary School principal for 13 years, addressed the school board on Aug. 13 during time reserved for public comment.

Ferguson said there are two sides to the school busing issue.

“I believe busing can be both right or wrong,” said Ferguson. “Children have to get back and forth to school each day, so busing must be right.”

Ferguson applauded the Wake County school board for taking a stand on diversity.

“Should Johnston County Public Schools believe their schools should be diverse?” said Ferguson. “They should, because there are extremely high-poverty schools and extremely affluent schools within a few miles of each other.”

Ferguson said equity in education means giving all students the same opportunities for success.

“Our black elementary school students in the Smithfield-Selma areas are not given the same opportunity as the black elementary students in the Cleveland-Clayton areas,” said Ferguson.

Growth does affect attendance lines, she said.

“The attendance area for Cleveland Elementary changed when McGee’s (Crossroads) Elementary opened and changed again when Polenta Elementary opened, changed again when West View opened and then Dixon Road,” said Ferguson. “Neighborhoods that used to attend Cleveland Elementary were bused to attend these other schools. Without question, growth creates change.”

Diversity can increase student achievement, said Ferguson.

“You need to look at every way to improve our test scores,” said Ferguson. “The preliminary county-wide reading scores have dropped again. Out of 37 elementary and middle schools, 29 of them are lower than last year. Why have you not used diversity to improve achievement? It will, and I have a whole book of research that says so.”

Ferguson said a key part of the school district’s JoCo 2020 plan is innovation.

“Synonyms for innovation are change, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis and reorganization,” said Ferguson. “Making schools more diverse would certainly be an innovation.”

Ferguson reminded board members of a quote from Charles Kettering on the Johnston County Public Schools website.

“‘If you have always done it that way, then it’s probably wrong,’” said Ferguson. “I challenge you to make diversity one of your board’s goals. I am hopeful that we have a school board and superintendent who will support looking at how to implement diversity in our schools. There are children who are not receiving an equitable education and that’s wrong. Bring back neighborhood schools in Smithfield and Selma that parents will want their children to attend. You who are sitting here today are the only ones who can make this happen.”

School board Chairman Mike Wooten expressed appreciation for Ferguson’s comments.

“I always value what you have to share and I appreciate the challenge that you’ve offered us,” said Wooten. “The board will take it under advisement and thank you for coming today.”