Some 25-30 parents and others from the community took time Saturday morning to attend one of the Listen and Learn sessions that have been instituted through Williamson County Schools’ partnership with Fostering Healthy Solutions, a consulting firm recently hired to help the district provide a safe learning environment for all students by creating a cultural strategy plan.
Led by Anita Foster-Horne and her son, Shan Foster, founders of Fostering Healthy Solutions, the hour-long sessions are meant to solicit thoughts from families and others in the community and gather feedback as it relates to the culture of Williamson County Schools. Each speaker is given two minutes to express thoughts and opinions that are tied to two basic questions:
- What changes would you like to see implemented for students and why?
- What changes would you like to see implemented for WCS?
Between sips of coffee, speakers at Saturday morning’s early session expressed a variety of concerns, from bullying to racial disparity, from hateful acts toward Asians to redefining the structure of family.
Hillary Hatcher, who has two children in a WCS elementary school, said she and her wife would like the district to be more cognizant of different family structures across the county and to be more accommodating toward those differences.
“My wife and I have been together for 16 years,” Hatcher said through the Zoom event, “and we have found that many of the school activities and assignments and forms consider a family by one definition, and by doing that we leave a lot of children out no matter their situation.
“When my son was in kindergarten,” she added, “the very first assignment he received was a family tree that he was supposed to fill out and present to his class. And the tree was already filled out for him. No matter the situation of any family in Williamson County and what that family looks like, every kid needs to feel like they’re included.”
The age-old topic of bullying was addressed by Edina Kishonthy, a marriage and family counselor who treats children of various ages. She said she hears from many clients and others who have concerns that all types of bullying in schools are not dealt with properly.
“There’s a prevailing feeling among parents and students that incidents of bullying are not being addressed in a just and fair way,” Kishonthy said. “There are no consequences for bullying of certain students.
“In one case, I had a client who went to his counselor at one of the high schools, and she told him they don’t do anything unless there’s physical injury. And to me, that’s outrageous. There needs to be consequences for saying things that are insulting and hurtful.”
Asians are experiencing an increase of violence, hate speech and threats on a national scale, and two parents spoke to the issue as it relates locally. Shifay Cheung, whose family lived in Hong Kong, England and New York before moving to Williamson County, blatantly called it ignorance.
“I’ve told many people that you don’t use ‘oriental’ to describe somebody,” she said. “I’m not a rug. It’s a racist, archaic term. I tell people this is what’s happening, and they’re surprised there’s [this level of] ignorance.
“Recently, with all the hate that’s been going on toward Asians, I hear, ‘oh, it’s really safe in Franklin.’ Well, I’ve been told to go back to China. I’ve had arguments about China with people. People have stepped away from me, thinking I have COVID. My kids have received verbal cuts.
“I worry every day that I’m going to go down the road and someone’s going to be mean to me, or my kids, because of who we are and what we look like.”
Dr. Jennifer Hollings, a physician in Brentwood who has three children in WCS, voiced concern that while Williamson County Schools is a top-tier school district for most families and students, not all are having positive experiences. She said that her kids and other children of color are having a higher level of expectation and, as a result, they may receive punishment at a higher level for a minor infraction.
“My child was written up for reading a classroom book in class while the other students were just told to put their books away and not to read,” Hollings explained.
“We’re really, really used to having those high expectations, in that whenever we fall outside of the bounds we need to be brought back in in a very stern fashion. My expectation and my desire for change in the Williamson County Schools system is to have equal expectations for all students at all times.”
Listen and Learn began Friday evening, and there was a noontime session Saturday in addition to the one in the morning. The next round of sessions will be in mid-May with three scheduled, and three more will be held in early June.