Same-sex empowerment conferences would make sense for Prince George's County Schools

The halls and classrooms at Fairfield Central High School, in Winnsboro, S.C., were devoid of female students, faculty and staff Oct. 31 when school began at 8:20 a.m. The school's 500 female students and female staffers had boarded buses that morning bound for an all-day empowerment conference in nearby Columbia, while the school's 400 male students stayed behind for a similar experience.

At the "We Rock" empowerment conference for women, the students attended workshops on setting career goals, self esteem, intimate relationships and conflict resolution. The facilitators were local women that included media personalities, business owners and counselors.

Career professionals and business owners who are members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity conducted the male students' sessions at the school. The young men also attended a workshop to hear, from a female's point of view, how women want to be treated and what's considered unacceptable behavior.

The same-sex workshops were arranged by school Principal David Corley, who is developing positive ways to deal with discipline issues at Fairfield Central that should be duplicated in schools in Prince George's County with similar problems.

When Corley took over the reins of the school in March, fights between students at times required police intervention and the disturbances were heavily covered by the local news media. One of the first things he did was to ban cell phones on campus, which he said was the source of many of the fights on campus.

"All of the he-said, she-said on cell phones had to stop, so if students are caught with a cell phone, we take it and their parents have to pick it up the first time; the second time, we keep it for 30 days and the third time, they don't get it back," Corley said. "We have great students here, but a lot of them are into material things — their clothes, cars, expensive cell phones — and are quick to fight over anything. So, we are trying to change that culture and get them more focused on education and how they should respect each other."

And he doesn't plan to try and accomplish that through a one-shot session, but additional workshops will be held in April. The male students will attend an all-day retreat off campus, while the females will remain in-house in sessions with the same facilitators to determine if any progress has been made. In the meantime, the students are staying in touch with their facilitators through questionnaires, Facebook and email.

Some school officials say fighting has decreased since Corley took over because the students realize that he has no tolerance for violence and is passionate about changing the mindset of students so they can excel. Corley said he's not trying to run a boot camp or turn the students into "puppets," but wants to encourage them to be aggressive in making sound decisions about how they conduct themselves, have a plan for their lives after high school and be "critical thinkers."

Things senior Jarrad Walker said were reinforced for him during the workshops.

"I was able to think critically, give smart answers and listen without the girls as a distraction," said Walker who plans to major in computer engineering. "When we left, we'd learned a lot that will help with our futures."

The kind of result Corley hopes to hear more of as he and his staff work to help the students in making sound choices about their futures and treating their classmates with more respect.

It was interesting that when there have been disturbances at the school in the past, the local newspaper has covered it and the media from Columbia have traveled the 23 miles to Winnsboro to report on the incidents. But only one station, WLXT-TV, a station in Columbia where I worked years ago, covered the empowerment conference, even although all of the media were invited to attend the same-sex conferences.

"We get a lot of negative coverage and there's a false impression about our students," Corley said. "But I tell my students that that's why they have to work hard to prove the naysayers wrong about us. … My students come here green as freshmen, but by senior year, they should know what they want to do in life. As it has been said by others, I tell them, enter to learn, depart to serve."

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