Beacon Journal staff writer
Akron Public Schools gave some of its speciality schools the elegant ''full-course dinner'' treatment when it came to promotion and marketing.
But the Stewart Africentric School a magnet program since 2000 got the ''hot-dog-and-chips'' treatment, and it showed, Rita Rogers said Monday.
Stewart had only 64 students in kindergarten through fifth grade this spring, prompting its closing to save money.
Rogers, who taught fifth grade at Stewart, made the dinner analogy at a meeting with Superintendent David James, school board President the Rev. Curtis T. Walker Sr., and about 20 parents, community supporters and teachers.
''We've been given hot dogs and chips for 10 years, and here's what we get,'' Rogers said. ''We have not been validated; we have not been promoted. We have been more like sabotaged and maligned.''
She said other specialty schools, such as Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and the new National Inventors Hall of Fame School, have benefited from district leadership and unambiguous support.
''That's where the attention is going, that's where the money is going and that's who's going to succeed,'' Rogers said. ''Stewart, on the other hand, has given 'stepchild' a bad name because we have been treated as if our success is up to us. Whatever happens, we have to create it ourselves, and that should not be.''
A parent and former Stewart employee, Dionne Melton, said that when she was inquiring about placing her son in kindergarten at Stewart in 2002, district staffers tried to steer her toward another school because Stewart was Africentric.
''It was whispered as if it was a cult going on,'' she said. ''I just thank God every day that I pursued it myself.''
Her son attended Stewart through fifth grade.
Melton volunteered at the school and later worked in the office, where, she said, she heard from other parents who also were told by administrative staff downtown that the school either was closed or full.
''I've seen it as a parent, and I've seen it once I was inside the office,'' Melton said.
The program used the same curriculum and testing as the other elementary schools, but infused traditional subjects with references to African culture and history. The school aimed to give black students confidence, motivation, discipline and pride in their heritage.
The district closed the Stewart building and four other schools last year, although some of the structures are being used for different purposes.
The Africentric program was relocated to the new Crouse elementary building in West Akron as a ''school within a school,'' sharing the same principal.
The Akron school board, however, quietly approved ending the program at a special meeting May 17, when it announced the layoff of 84 teachers as part of a budget-cutting package.
That meeting began with a public presentation about the district's finances and the need for layoffs, but the issue of closing Stewart was not discussed publicly.
The board was told behind closed doors before it voted that the package of budget reductions included the closing of Stewart. When members returned to the public session, they voted to approve the layoffs and cost reductions without discussing Stewart specifically.
That didn't sit well with Larry Johnson (Nana Mahdi), who was involved in the planning for the Africentric school and was principal of Stewart from 2000 until he retired for health reasons in 2004.
''The way it was done angers me,'' Johnson said. ''The school exists because of the community, but it was closed because of an executive, behind-closed-doors, in-the-corner, in-the-dark decision.''
Walker said the meeting Monday with Stewart supporters, which lasted more than two hours, was productive.
He acknowledged afterward that people would have appreciated an up-or-down vote on Stewart's future in public.
''There wasn't any public discussion,'' Walker said.
He said he was troubled to hear parents might have been steered away and that the district didn't do more to promote the program.
''They shed some light on some things I was not personally aware of,'' Walker said.
He will share those concerns with the board and it might reconsider.
''We can't promise anything,'' Walker said. ''We may end up with the same result because of finance, because of low enrollment, because of test scores, because there's no other place to put it that we may still have to close, but we need to do due diligence on our part.''