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A Dispatch Special Report: Two Columbus families look at where we've been, and hope to go


Pictured at the Riverwalk Wednesday are, from left, Columbus High School senior Will Waggoner, his grandfather Spencer Waggoner and uncle Neil Waggoner, Amonte Adams, 7, and sister Chloe Adams, 8, with their father, Armondo Adams. Both families have three generations educated in Columbus public schools. Amonte and Chloe are in second- and third-grade at Fairview Elementary School.

Pictured at the Riverwalk Wednesday are, from left, Columbus High School senior Will Waggoner, his grandfather Spencer Waggoner and uncle Neil Waggoner, Amonte Adams, 7, and sister Chloe Adams, 8, with their father, Armondo Adams. Both families have three generations educated in Columbus public schools. Amonte and Chloe are in second- and third-grade at Fairview Elementary School. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


Jan Swoope



Chloe Adams is considering her options. As of this week, she hopes to grow up to be a teacher and professional chef. Oh, and a doctor. 


"And I want to work at Walmart, too!" she giggled.  


Chloe is 8 years old. Her brother, Amonte, is 7. He wants to become a firefighter, a policeman and a paramedic. A dozen more dreams will capture their imagination in the years ahead, but even now their parents, Armondo and Tenisha Adams, realize the chance that any of them comes true depends largely on the education they get in the Columbus Municipal School District.  


As CMSD launches the search for its next superintendent and a new era, two families with Columbus public education legacies look back at a few changes they've witnessed through three generations. They also look forward, to where they hope the district can go from here. 






Both families agree a seismic revolution in technology has dramatically transformed youth culture, and therefore education. 


"Technology? What technology? We didn't have any that I'm aware of," said Spencer Waggoner who graduated in 1960 from S.D. Lee High School.  


The retired bank officer's sons, Neil and Brian, also attended city schools. So did their children. Brian's son, Will Waggoner, is a senior at Columbus High School.  


Spencer continued, "We had to read our assignments and lessons directly out of the textbook. My grandson doesn't have textbooks. They're always on laptops." 


When Will's uncle, Neil, and dad, Brian, graduated from Lee High in 1987 and 1992, respectively, technology was still a fairly exotic topic. 


"We had a basic computer programming class, but it was obsolete by the time I got to college," recalled Brian, who went into a career in the electrical industry. 


Today's students like Will live in a digital world light years removed from their parents' generation. It's transformed the way subjects are taught and how teachers, parents and students interact. News, menus, school policies -- even streamed football games -- are a login away on CMSD's website. Families can follow the district on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Students are almost continually connected in one way or another. 


It's a far cry from when pastor Armondo Adams' mother was in Columbus schools in the '70s, when teachers still sent notes home and kids communicated when everybody met up in someone's yard to play. By the time Armondo was at Columbus High in the late '90s, students were carrying beepers, but no one envisioned what was to come. 


"Our cell phone was a pay phone!" Armondo said. 




Finding balance 


Even at ages 7 and 8, Armondo's children, Amonte and Chloe, are fascinated with devices, as are their classmates. Parents worry interest can morph into obsession. They also know schools must adapt to an evolving reality.  


"We used to get books out and look for the answers, and that made you appreciate the information you had to search for," Armondo said. "Now you just google, and it's at your fingertips. For kids now, their play time is a computer, a phone. They don't have energy, they're not going out in the sun. They're always wrapped up in some device. I really try to teach my children (responsible uses) of electronics." 


Neil Waggoner agreed. Even the architect's 4-year-old "grabs the Kindle" on visits to grandmother.  


"I think back then friends were better friends than they are today because cell phones are such a distraction. If you wanted to see somebody, you went to their house. If you wanted to talk, you picked up a real phone and called them," he said.  


High school senior Will is "big into video gaming," whereas leisure time for his father, uncle and grandfather often entailed hanging out with friends at Bob's Place, an eatery west of the Tombigbee. There was the river in summer and hunting in winter, and occasional nights out to the movies. Kids caught rides with the few who were lucky enough to have a car.  


"Anybody who could afford a car had one," said Brian, who worked at Baskin Robbins after school to maintain the vehicle his parents helped him get. Neil worked, too, when he was a student. 


"I was responsible for that car," said Brian. "I don't seem to see so many students these days put forth effort to get a job and keep one."  




Discipline, respect 


Many families are concerned about what they see as an erosion of respect and discipline in the school environment.  


"When a teacher told you to do something when I was in school, you didn't question it, you just did it," said Spencer.  


He's disturbed now by accounts about teachers who have to spend valuable time controlling classrooms, rather than teaching.  


"I hear about kids in class being loud and disruptive, and it's hard to learn," Brian remarked.  


"Respect is the main issue; if kids aren't learning respect at home, they're not going to have it in class. Students must be held accountable for their actions." 


Neither family cited significant issues between races during their school years. Spencer attended before Columbus schools were integrated. The others went through school well after the transition effectively occurred locally in 1970. 


"We all got along great," said Neil of his personal experience.  


After attending a private elementary school, he believes his horizons expanded after transferring to public school.  


"I've still got (African-American) friends from then to this day that I keep in touch with.  


"Personally, from what I've seen though, I don't think people try as hard to get along now," he added. 




Looking forward 


Everyone is aware CMSD faces multiple challenges as it strives for improvement Strong leadership, teachers genuinely invested in children and teaching, stronger parent involvement and community support are at the core, they believe. 


"Anything can be improved as long as you get the right people and the right teams in place," Brian said. 


Spencer hopes the school board's superintendent search brings in a leader dedicated to even discipline and to supporting the authority of teachers to teach. He'd also like to see uniforms at Columbus High. 


"I think it would help in appearance and in discipline," he said. 


Neil believes it's important to have someone young enough to be savvy on technology, with energy and spirit, but experienced enough to have strong character and work ethic.  


"And you've got to pay teachers and hire teachers who can improve discipline. That will lead to getting grades up," Neil said. "And parents have got to be involved." 




Bring in the village 


Armondo encourages district leadership to engage more with churches and community. 


He said, "Dr. (Philip) Hickman has done an awesome job (as superintendent); the next person can take it to the next level." 


It will take everyone pulling together. Three things are a must, the pastor said.  


"We need to put more emphasis on praying with our children, reading with them and doing math with them," he said. "Tell your children more often that you love them and that they're doing a great job, even if they have a challenge. A lot of times, they can override the challenge if they have a parent telling them that. It pushes them to another level. 


"We need more fathers," Armondo emphasized. "We've got a million mothers who show up at band recitals and ball games, but we don't have a hundred fathers. Our children need to see us in their activities and in their academics." 


Tenisha Adams, Armondo's wife, attended Noxubee County schools but worked in the Columbus school district for nine years. As a CMSD parent, she hopes to see smaller classes and more teachers, especially teachers with patience and a genuine love of students and teaching. She echoes that parent involvement is essential. She feels strongly, too, that more options should be available for students with challenges. 


"We don't have a one-size-fits-all generation," she said. More constructive options could cut down on what she thinks is an excessive number of students on ADHD medication. "We could use some different strategies," she added. 




In their eyes 


In the meantime, young Chloe and Amonte say they love going to school at Fairview Elementary. They find it funny to imagine their dad as a boy walking those same hallways.  


Chloe likes math -- and eating. Amonte likes science, math and P.E. The future stretches before them like one long adventure. 


Will, about to graduate from Columbus High, feels pretty good about the next step, too. 


"I think the school has prepared me for coming out into the real world," the senior said. "Lately, I've been thinking of becoming a teacher myself."  


When pressed, Will did come up with one thing he would change about school, if he could: "Better food," he said.


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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