DECATUR — When the Rev. Dow Moses and his wife moved to Decatur 14 years ago, one of the first things they heard was how bad Decatur schools were.
“The negative perception, especially about the high schools, was overwhelming,” said Dow, pastor at New Vision Urban Ministries.
As a pastor, he said, he holds parents responsible, and tells them it's their job to go to their children's schools and be involved.
That negative perception was one of the things Superintendent Paul Fregeau addressed at a breakfast meeting held at Eisenhower High School on Thursday.
“We need to do a better job of telling our own story,” Fregeau said.
In the last two years, he said, Decatur students have earned over $5 million in scholarship money and graduates are attending colleges like Harvard and Dartmouth. Plans are under way to provide enough dual-credit classes to allow high school students to graduate with an associate's degree as well as a diploma, saving college costs. Internship programs prepare students for careers, some right out of high school.
He also discussed the teacher shortage that is a challenge for all Illinois districts, which has led to 68 long-term substitute teachers filling positions in Decatur schools that would otherwise be vacant. The district recently decided to rename substitutes “guest teachers” and to have programs in place to help people through the sometimes long and intimidating process of becoming a substitute. Fregeau urged the people in attendance at the breakfast to consider becoming a guest teacher, and to put the word out to people they know.
A bus driver shortage is also a challenge, he said. With 95 bus routes the ideal, the district's contractor, Alltown, has only 92 drivers available. When field trips or sports events come up, it's difficult to schedule buses.
Henry Walker, director of operations, told the group that Alltown has incentive programs, too, which can help potential drivers acquire their commercial driver's license and the training to be a bus driver.
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Other ways people can help, Fregeau said, include volunteering at schools and providing internship opportunities for students. Church/school partnerships have long been in place in Decatur schools.
Beth McLaughlin, a member of Grace United Methodist Church, said the church has chosen Hope Academy. Two people volunteer to help in each classroom.
“We're on the path to greatness here in Decatur,” Fregeau said. “We will be the destination district in this region and it's because of the internal team in the district, as well as our community partners who provide us with so much support.”
Dow said it's about building connections.
“We have partnered for years with Enterprise School with our church and had not had much experience with the high schools until we took a foster child into our home. The things that we saw in our experience as parents, was in the day-to-day helping the child. We saw a complete turnaround as we partnered with this school right here,” he said.
“Teachers, principals, everybody was so willing to help us make a difference in the life of that child. And I think the biggest issue we deal with in our community is building strong relationships between parents and our schools, and how do we encourage those types of relationships?”