February 19, 2004

SIUC reaches out to Cairo school district

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. - A group of African-American faculty and staff at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Cairo school officials are looking at ways to improve education in the Alexander County district.

Twelve members of the University's Black Faculty-Staff caucus met Wednesday, Feb. 18, with Cairo school officials, including Superintendent Robert Isom, to offer assistance and discuss how SIUC can assist the district in its school improvement plan.

The district, which is about one hour south of Carbondale, has 900 students in pre-kindergarten through high school. In January 2003, Cairo voluntarily asked the Illinois State Board of Education to create a financial oversight panel for the district.

The meeting came about through discussions involving Seymour Bryson, SIUC's associate chancellor for diversity, and Donald E. Patton, a counselor in the University's MEDPREP program. MEDPREP helps eligible students prepare for careers in dentistry or other health-related fields.

One of the goals of the Black Faculty-Staff Caucus is to become more involved in community service, said Bryson. The organization is also working with Thomas School in Carbondale.

I think it is part of the University's commitment to community service," said Bryson. "We have a group of African-American professionals who are looking for an opportunity to serve, to be part of cooperative projects and activities."

In addition to utilizing faculty and staff, Joseph A. Brown, director of the University's Black American Studies program, noted there are numerous African-American registered student organizations on campus that can assist in various programs.

Serving others and participating in community outreach programs are among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the long-range development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

I think probably the most important accomplishment is the opening of lines of communication," said Isom. "I think we all realize that our students need additional exposure, incentives, motivation, and I think we are beginning to develop a partnership with the University which will help us provide some of those things both from an external and an internal perspective."

Among the areas discussed where the University can likely offer help were student and staff development.

Isom believes the University can help to increase student achievement by investing resources, "not necessarily capital resources, but human resources." University professors have worked individually with the district in the past, but this is the first time that a group has asked, "What can we do to help?" he said.

I think it is more than simply an academic approach, but it is a social and psychological approach," said Isom. "We are looking for whatever expertise, whatever motivation they can bring in whatever areas to help us increase not only student achievement, but students' outlooks."

I do believe that outreach by the University is very important," Isom said. "I think that Cairo is, and can be a vital resource to the University, just as the University can be a vital resource for Cairo."

The importance of Wednesday's meeting centered on building relationships.

We made them aware of the expertise and interest of the people on this campus and also made the faculty - those people who participated - aware of some of their needs," he said. "And so I think we created a mechanism to begin to work on some joint projects together."

Bryson wants to see the relationship build so that the involvement is "not a one-time-only kind of activity."

And that is going to take some time to develop," he said. "We want this to be a long-term continuous relationship; not go down there one time or two times or three times and drop it."

The group toured Cairo and identified two more potential projects: collecting books for the Cairo Public Library, and a research project on the city's history.

"The University is interested and wants to be of help," said Bryson. "We are trying to create an opportunity to bring people together."