Coping with School Mediocrity
Concerned parents serve as researchers, advocates, and change makers while navigating through struggling schools. And when parent speak up and communities rally, it boosts the educational climate for all students.
During the school year, a child will spend more of her waking hours at school than anywhere else. Parents, understandably, want their children to have good teachers, a positive social environment, and a supportive administration at school.
If polling data holds true, most believe that's exactly what they get. Gallup has conducted a poll since 1985 asking parents what they think of their child's school and asking the general public what they think of public schools overall.
Year after year, parents of school age children rank their children's schools as at least a B; in 2010, the most recent year for the poll, 77 percent would give their child's school at least a B.
That number falls off significantly when parents and nonparents are asked about their local school districts, and even more when asked about public schools as a whole. Most people, 71 percent, would give the public schools in America no more than a C.
Why such a big gap? Did the survey manage to reach only parents who live in outstanding public school districts? Unlikely.
What it comes down is that no one wants to believe the school they send their child to is bad. Everyone wants to provide the best possible education for their children, but that's not always easy for parents already dealing with obstacles like poverty and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
But some parents manage to make the best of a challenging situation with schools that are less than optimal. They advocate for their children in ways large and small, and often end up improving the educational climate for all children in their community as well.
One group working to empower parents is Michigan Parents for Schools. With a focus on traditional public schools, they believe in working with schools to improve educational outcomes for all kids. After all, whether you use them or not, public schools belong to all of us and deserve to be treated as a public asset.
"As citizens, we are the owners of our public schools, and we have the right to be heard and participate in how things work," says Steven Norton, executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools. "On the other hand, we also have a responsibility to think beyond our own family when we call for changes. So, just because a parent may decide that some other option would work better for their child does not mean you should abandon your efforts to make our local public schools better for every child."
Michigan Parents for Schools has drafted a proposal that has been incorporated into a bill before the state legislature that would change the way the state deals with failing schools. Currently the Education Achievement Authority can take over the lowest performing five percent of schools in the state and essentially rebuild them from the ground up from a centralized state authority.
Under the MPFS proposal, a locally based team of experts would go in to review the school. The team would then draft a set of recommendations to get the school back on track and state or intermediate school district officials would come up with a plan to implement the experts' recommendations. If that fails, then more draconian measures kick in.
"Our parent proposal to assist struggling schools is based on the idea that these poorly-performing schools are in more need of help than punishment," Norton says. "We need to find ways to help local educators, parents, and community members develop their own solutions because those are the most likely to last."
Local activism for schools starts at the neighborhood level, when people connect with each other and their neighborhood schools. In Grand Rapids, Believe 2 Become is creating parent activists in four neighborhood zones in the city, and they undertake change making in many ways.
This fall, they launched Parent University, which is a joint venture between Grand Rapids Public School and Believe 2 Become. It will help prepare parents to become parent leaders in GRPS's Parent Teacher Community Councils. Parent University also engages families through gatherings in each zone, with a community meal, live music, and more. Speakers emphasize the importance of education and talk about how parents can engage more productively with schools.
From there, facilitators drawn from the community work with smaller groups of residents to come up with goals and objectives around their children's education. Over the next weeks and months, the facilitation team, known as "natural helpers," works with residents to achieve those goals.
"One of the things the Believe 2 Become initiative is doing is helping parents find the best fit for their kid and be a good navigator in the education system," says Mary Greene, a Believe 2 Become spokesperson.
Grand Rapids Public Schools has recently gone through an exhaustive transformation process and now offers several schools focusing on specific areas, such as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) education, so knowing how to sort through those options to find the best fit is more important for parents than ever.
Believe 2 Become also coordinates a summer learning academy, where students who are going to summer school for credit recovery also have access to a summer program run by about 40 different community partners. They do everything from building and launching rockets to learning to sew, and all of it has a literacy focus that will put the students in position to better succeed when they are back in school in the fall. These activities help students become better advocates for their own futures, as well. "Believe 2 Become offers these opportunities, but it's the kids who are doing the work," Greene says. "They are really active participants in their own success."
While Believe 2 Become works with parents and kids further along in their student careers, parent activism really starts before children even enter K-12 schooling.
In Detroit, a group of parents of younger children are using social media and face-to-face time to network, share concerns, and talk about their vision for the ideal school environment – all before their children even start kindergarten. The Best Classroom Project is a grassroots group of parents with children born in or after 2009 that have been working together for about a year to investigate school options for their children within the city of Detroit.
Reaching the young parent demographic is critical since the true test of sustainability for the trend of younger people moving into a city is what they do when they have children and those children go to school. If they don’t see any options for their kids, or they can’t afford the ones that exist, they'll head to the suburbs, the conventional wisdom goes. Best Classroom families are looking to change that narrative and make the most of what is in the city versus bemoaning what is not.
A core group of parents were prompted to start the group by seeing what other families went through trying to find a school, which sometimes resulted in sending children to school in the suburbs or simply being frustrated with what they perceived to be their options.
"We are bound by a strong commitment to the city and our neighborhood and other families, so that by working together we might all consider options that we might not have considered on our own," says Olga Stella, one of the leaders of the group.
They started out as a Facebook group, and have expended to periodic face-to-face meetings. They've also been attending open houses and visiting schools and sharing information with the rest of the group, Stella says.
Organizing with other families before kindergarten means they have time to investigate their options and perhaps even become involved with a school community before their children start school, Stella says. There's also an agreement to keep the group ideology-free and stay open to all options, she says, while understanding different schools will work for different families.
"It really allayed a lot of concerns over whether or not we'll be able to find the right option for our child in the city," she says. "I feel much more confident today that we'll be able to enroll our child in a great school."