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The Healing Power of Sunshine

by Dennis Milligan

October 4,2005

After years of warnings to slather our bodies with SPF-45 sun block and avoid exposure to the sun, researchers recently found that a regular dose of sunshine provides our bodies with one of the most powerful cancer fighting anti-oxidants yet discovered, vitamin D-3.

Sunshine is a potent healer and not just in the literal sense. If you’re not in the news business, it’s likely you didn’t notice the beams of light streaming through the previously shrouded halls of power at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. After three years of closure during the administration of former superintendent James Pughesly, the doors and windows of the district are now open. The news media, and by extension parents and taxpayers, have been invited back into the district to take a look around. Administrators and teachers are now encouraged by CMS leadership (specifically interim superintendent, Dr. Frances Haithcock) to bravely step into the light of public scrutiny.

To fully appreciate the difference in attitude, you need to understand the difficulty the Pughesly administration had in handling its own public profile. As a journalist, my first experience with the past administration was frustrating but revealing. Traditionally, the CMS superintendent makes public appearances at several campuses on the first day of school. It’s a time for teachers, parents, students and taxpayers to see the person in charge reviewing the troops, making sure all is in order. It’s a largely meaningless tradition, but one that’s reassuring to the public, especially with a brand spanking new commander. However on Jim Pughesly’s first first-day-of-school we were told by his public information office that he would not have any school visits open to the media. It seemed like a snub not just to us, but to the public whose only window into the workings of CMS is through the news media. That day I instructed our education reporter to go in search of our new superintendent with a “Where’s Waldo?” approach. If he wasn’t going to make himself available on the first day of school, by golly, we were going to make our best effort to find him. Turns out we never did and the resulting story did not make the then-new administration happy. I didn’t expect that it would.

That first experience was unfortunately the public relations template for the next three years. Journalist’s requests for access to schools, teachers, principals or decision makers were too often denied under the guise of “not interrupting the educational process.” Repeated meetings with the public information officer and even school board members yielded no change. By its resistance, the Pughesly administration displayed fear of, if not utter contempt for, the public it was hired to serve.

Let’s step away from the past and back into the current light. So far, interim superintendent, Dr. Frances Haithcock’s track record is illuminating. It started with weekly briefings where she invited reporters to sit down and talk. No holds barred. All questions fair game. She provided media training to school principals and gave them the trust and freedom to talk to reporters at will.

The most telling sign of change was WBTV News 3’s recent series called “The Troubled Ten.” We focused on the 10 worst performing high schools in CMS and how the principals of each school planned to turn things around. Nine out of ten agreed to sit down with our education reporter to detail their plans. In the end, they came off as smart, caring people with solid plans to help kids perform to their highest potential.

CMS, like most urban school districts in America, is plagued by problems most of which are not the doing of this administration or the ones before it. Shifting public policy, social dynamics and court orders, not to mention a less-than-cohesive school board, do their damage. The CMS administration needs the support and input of the public it serves. Barring the windows and doors did nothing but breed suspicion. Exposing the district to the light of day now gives us all the chance to participate in, or at least appreciate, positive change. Sunshine is indeed a great healer and may prove be the cure for many of the ills at CMS.

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