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S.C. Uses 'Hard Talk' in EffortTo Reconnect Public, Schools

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Education, business, and media officials in South Carolina met earlier this month to discuss how to get the public back into public schools.

"Hard Talk" was the name of a two-day conference hosted by state schools chief Barbara Stock Nielsen, the South Carolina School Boards Association, and the State newspaper in Columbia. About 120 educators, business owners, and newspaper editors gathered to discuss the erosion of confidence and involvement in the state's public schools.

"Our intent was to present the ideas and talk about the issues," Ms. Nielsen said. Seven pilot districts and newspapers that cover those communities were targeted to discuss residents' disconnection from their local schools.

"A substantial change must be made if we're going to prepare our children adequately for the 21st century," Ms. Nielsen said last week. "We all want a strong public education system. We want citizens prepared for the future, but we seem to talk past each other."

The effort comes as districts around the nation are pursuing ways of involving the public more deeply in shaping decisions in public education. ("A Lesson in Winning Back an Estranged Public," This Week's News.)

The superintendent said the conference was meant to create common ground for diverse opinions and convince everyone involved that the changes needed in public education aren't a job for any single group.

Something for Everyone

"We're hoping this serves as a catalyst for the communities to become empowered," Ms. Nielsen explained. "Each community must develop their own concerns."

The conference was the beginning of a two- to three-year process aimed at building public support for specific changes in South Carolina schools. The goal, Ms. Nielsen said, is to put parents and groups like the PTA in touch with religious, civic, and business organizations. The larger group would spend time identifying the problems schools face and devise recommendations to fix them.

Gil Thelen, the executive editor of the State, said that the news media must play a role too, because they disseminate information and spur local and neighborhood discussions.

"We chronicle what is going on," Mr. Thelen said. "We are not partners to the school systems, but allies to the children in them."

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