A medley of Jackson Public School District parents, current and former educators and others met at Anderson United Methodist Church Monday to stress the need for inclusion in the district’s transformation.

Monday’s meeting was one of several listening sessions scheduled this week, part of the Better Together Commission‘s community outreach efforts. Across town, a separate session took place at Christ United Methodist Church.

Attendees had the chance to fill out a “concern” or “aspiration” card, where they noted their affiliation with the district, whether they lived in Jackson, if they had children in the district, and briefly described the comment they intended to make during the meeting. The public can also email bettertogetherms@gmail.com.

Individuals had the opportunity to address what they wrote on the cards publicly at the meeting, put them in a fishbowl, or privately record audio with a volunteer. The input from each card from all of the listening sessions will be compiled in a report for the commission and ultimately factored into a gap analysis of the district, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the crowd.

“I want you to know that what is taking place right now is not just a moment where we are stating our problems. We’re not just being cynics of what we see,” Lumumba said before heading to the other listening session. “What is taking place right now is the most critical part of everything we’re doing.”

This fall, the 15-member commission was announced as part of a partnership between the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, City of Jackson, and Gov. Phil Bryant’s office. The group will oversee an outside evaluation of Jackson Public Schools.

Many who chose to speak described themselves as “products of JPS,” and shared their concerns.

Some speakers acknowledged they were single parents working multiple jobs to provide for their children, and this sometimes makes it hard to attend parent teacher meetings or PTA meetings.

Christiane Williams told the audience her son is in the 10th grade at Provine High School, and while she feels it is a good place for him she does have some concerns.

“When it comes to parents and parental involvement, we’ve got to make sure that the parents feel welcome,” Williams said. “A lot of times I’ve heard from parents who say ‘I can’t think like you all’ or ‘I can’t speak like you all.’ Regardless of our education level, we need to make sure we have open arms for all parents regardless of how they’re dressed.”

North Jackson Elementary PTA president Shawndolynn Bell said she was worried about teachers’ commitment to the students. A JPS graduate herself, Bell said she wants her two children to graduate from the district because she had a good experience and knows it is possible, but doesn’t feel they are currently getting a good education.

“In a sense it’s almost as if you are forcing the hand, PTA president or not,” Bell said. “I will not fail my children and if it means me moving them to make sure they progress as a child, then I’m sorry they just can’t be Jackson Public School graduates. I can’t fail them as a parent.”

Common concerns included too much testing, aging facilities, and placing an emphasis on district staff living in Jackson city limits so they are more invested in the community.

There are five listening sessions left this week:

Tuesday, Dec. 12
— Cade Chapel Baptist Church, 1000 Ridgeway Rd.
— Siwell Middle School, 1983 N. Siwell Rd.

Wednesday, Dec. 13
— Provine High School, 2400 Robinson Road
— Mississippi e-Center at Jackson State University, 1230 Raymond Rd.

Thursday, Dec. 14
— Jackson City Hall, 219 S. President St.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.