Miss Perceptions

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June 14, 2017
Miss Perceptions
by Tixie Fowler
Gardens for Growing Community, Inc.
A group of local realtors and builders once told me the biggest reason young families choose not to live in Norcross is the schools. Having attended public schools in at least 5 states, I wondered why and when I asked parents, the responses included a good bit of adult squirming. A pattern began to emerge: although most of us strive to be politically correct, it seemed like some pretty big life decisions continued to be based on perceptions.  I still wonder why having children immersed in a multicultural learning environment should cause concern for anyone reaping the benefits of a global economy.
But back then, motivated by curiosity, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into the halls of our Norcross Cluster schools. I met the teachers and administrators and started talking to students of every age. Almost instantly, I was reminded how off track perceptions can be, and of the powers of misperception. 
At the annual June educators' leadership conference for Gwinnett principals and administrators, Summerour Middle School principal Dorothy Parker-Jarrett and her admin team hosted a session on the importance of engaging community in public schools. As the volunteer caretaker of the school's Environmental Education Center, I was invited to participate, as was Terri Hoye, Associate Pastor of Administration, Missions & Children's Pastor at Norcross First United Methodist Church. We were asked to tell the roomful of educators why we, adults without a child in the system, would offer our time, energy and resources to local schools.
The answer was easy. Volunteering in classrooms is one way we can help effect positive change in the world, beginning here at home. It sounds lofty, but the children who are currently passing through the halls of our local elementary, middle and high schools are the same ones who will someday be maintaining the economic and social structure of our towns, our county, our country. Teachers work hard to get these children to leave any socially imposed challenges at the front door and focus instead on what is possible – good jobs, a safe place to live, a healthy, happy family.
The same things all of us want, in some fashion or another.
Schools are considered important community assets; schools are also catalysts for positive social change. Traditionally isolated except for sporting events, educators are now realizing the tremendous value of connecting students with the people who live, work and play nearby.  Research indicates that linking the community with the classroom improves school-related behaviors, and positively impacts academic achievement. Community members aren't invited because the school needs help – they're invited because they can offer students something that makes academics more meaningful and relevant. When WSB-TV meteorologist Brian Monahan was invited to talk to a 6th grade Earth Science class, learning about weather patterns was suddenly “cool” – who knew you could get PAID to know this stuff! When Rick Barnes, the arborist from Downey Trees helped 2nd graders count rings of a tree to determine its age, they were shocked to realize trees could be older than their grandparents. When members of the Southwest Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce pitched in to conduct Mock Interviews with 8th graders, many of the professionals who took that hour out of their day reported being “blown away” by the exceptional manners, intellect and interests exhibited by the students. And when members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra came to Summerour to perform with students in April, they were “startled and amazed” by the exceptional level of student talent. In fact, they asked if they could join the young musicians again next year.
All these experiences changed perceptions of both the adults and the youth with whom they interacted. Doors and eyes were opened, and seeds planted that may eventually define a child's future.
After presenting at June's leadership conference in Athens, Terri and I returned to Norcross feeling humbled by the amazing energy and dedication of Gwinnett's school leaders. It was also exciting to think of all the people  – parents, business owners, young couples and retirees – who might be willing to share their skills and experiences with local youth. There are many ways, from spending 30 minutes reading “Green Eggs and Ham” out loud to a child, to sharing career experiences in a classroom or working side-by-side in the garden with a teenager. By doing so, even if we give only an hour or a day, perhaps more of us will be inspired to change our perceptions about neighbors, local schools and teachers, and gain a perspective that is more embracing, positive and real. 
To find out more how you and your business can support local schools, please visit www.southwestgwinnettchamber.com and look under “What's New” for School Volunteer Opportunities.

Caption for photo of group lined up:
Pictured L to R: Summerour Middle School (SMS) Assistant Principal (AP) Toni Weir, community volunteers and SWGC Board members Tixie Fowler and Terri Hoye, SWGC Chairman and SMS Principal Dorothy Parker-Jarrett, SMS AP's Natalie Looney and Ron Bonny.
Caption for photo of Dave Jones conducting interview with student:
SWGC member and past president Dave Jones volunteers every year to conduct Mock Interviews with 8th graders at Summerour Middle School as part of their career development curriculum.
Caption for photo of adult and kids in woods:
SWGC member Frank Kellert lends a helping hands to students during a Rivers Alive! Clean-A-Stream event in 2016.