The 'curse' of involved school parents

Posted: May 16, 2014

I ONCE KNEW an enthusiastic young teacher who couldn't wait for her first-ever back-to-school night in a Philadelphia public school. She'd enjoyed meeting parents at the schools where she'd taught as a student, and figured it would be the same here.

She cleaned her classroom until it gleamed. Baked brownies for parents to nibble. Printed out copies of an essay that described her teaching philosophy. Wrote her contact info on index cards so parents could be in touch, day or night.

Then she combed her hair, freshened her lipstick and waited for the moms and dads to arrive.

No one showed. Not one. And she realized, as she sadly chewed a brownie, how spoiled she'd been at the schools where she'd done her student teaching. Each had a healthy core of engaged parents who never, ever would have missed a back-to-school night.

I thought of her as I spoke this week with parents whose kids attend Bache-Martin Elementary School in Fairmount. They'd contacted me because they felt that the urgent concerns they'd expressed for months, to teachers and administrators about some academic and disciplinary situations, were not being addressed.

Impressively, the parents were worried not about their own children's welfare, but about the welfare of other kids whose needs they thought had been shortchanged.

Oh, what my young teacher friend would've given to have parents involved enough to make a stink like the one the Bache parents are making.

Because the only thing worse than parents who complain are parents who don't know or care enough to complain or haven't the capacity to advocate for their children.

The Philadelphia School District has plenty of uninvolved parents, who get blamed for why schools don't work. Yet, I've known staffers who want the perks of having involved parents in their schools - you know, caring adults who make sure their kids are well-fed, well-slept, well-behaved, on time and ready to learn - but none of the drawbacks: high expectations for classroom quality, school climate and communication.

This seems to be why tensions are high at Bache, which has a dynamic core of parents committed to the school's success.

They've forged partnerships with the Philadelphia Museum of Art (whose rep told the school to "consider the museum an extension of your school campus") and Whole Foods Market (which raised more than $6,100 for the school's courtyard garden).

They've created alliances with the Walnut Street Theatre, the Clay Studio, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Villanova University.

Using bake sales, bingo nights, flea markets, grants and the like, they've raised more than $20,000 to fund a teacher from Playworks, the nonprofit that designs curriculum and activities for recess, lunch and after-school programs.

They've recruited adults from PECO and the Dechert law firm to work as "reading buddies" with Bache students.

They staff the school on weekends, when it's open for community sports, arts and other activities. They volunteer in the classroom and on field trips. Run school dances. One mom, a yoga teacher, even offers free classes to teachers on Wednesday afternoons.

I could go on. But you get the point. These parents are using their time, talents, resources and connections to make Bache a community that staffers and families want to be part of.

This doesn't mean, obviously, that they know as much about pedagogy, classroom management and subject instruction as do the professionals who have years of educational training behind them. But it also doesn't mean they should ignore their gut when it tells them something isn't right, says Erin Horvat, associate professor of urban education at Temple University.

"At even the best schools, there's a struggle between involved parents and school leaders," she says. "The conflict can be healthy. A parent's job is to advocate for her child; a school leader's is to advocate for every child and for her teachers."

The key to balancing all of those needs is respectful communication. Which seems easy, until you factor in the emotion of parents worried about their children and teachers or administrators worried about their jobs.

From what I can tell, parents contacted the Daily News because they felt their reasonable requests for information and answers at Bache were not just falling on deaf ears but were also being met with contempt. That's a lousy way to thank parents for being involved.

Bache can't afford to ignore committed parents.

No school can.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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