Friday, January 27, 2012

Paving the road to Charleston with good intentions

I remember being a kid in school, seeing other students' parents there for any and every school activity there was. They were present so often that when they were absent, it was cause for alarm. Were they all right? Had they taken ill? Were they visiting family out-of-town?

My own parents didn't do that, and I knew well why. Both worked, full-time, to support a family with several children. We had no independent wealth, and no white-collar jobs in the household, so my folks were not familiar faces at my schools. Unlike the cases of my friends' parents, it was cause for concern when my mom and dad did come to school -- usually to pick up an ill child.

Certainly I wished that my folks were like my friends' folks in one way, that they had the sort of freedom that let them pop up for a pep rally, a choral recital, a school play, a ballgame, and to be woven into the fabric of a small school community. Reality was, they didn't have that freedom.

This is what came to mind when I read about the recommendation of a well-intending parent group in Charleston, who asked the local school board "to require parents or guardians to give eight hours of their time annually to their children's schools. Parents would receive a rating of 'highly engaged' or 'emerging' at the end of the year based on whether they fulfilled that commitment."

At least one board member was eager to hear it.

The school board didn't make a decision, but board members likely will consider it again at a future meeting. Their reactions were mixed. Some, such as member Cindy Bohn Coats, wholeheartedly supported the premise.

"I love it," she said. "When can we start?"
The proposal came from the Parents Roundtable, a group of parent representatives from schools across the district that has been meeting regularly with Superintendent Nancy McGinley since 2007. McGinley said she saw their idea as a proactive step that would raise awareness.
Hope Hannon is a member of the roundtable and has children at Fort Johnson Middle and Stiles Point Elementary. She said the Family Partnership Agreement would let parents know how they could get more involved, and that would help schools achieve their goals.

"We don't have anything that holds the family accountable," she said.

Hannon regularly volunteers at her children's schools, and she spent some of her time Thursday at Fort Johnson Middle, making copies for science classes and a band fundraiser, soliciting feedback from a teacher on the proposed agreement, and meeting with the school's guidance counselor. She doesn't want the agreement to be viewed as punitive or judgmental, and she doesn't think it is either the way it's written, she said.

Mmm. Well, let's see: "Highly-engaged" or "emerging." To "emerge" means "To rise from or as if from immersion," "To come forth from obscurity," "To become evident," or "To come into existence," as if their absence from chaperoning the school dance means they don't exist, or they're hidden, or unknown, or -- worst of all -- under water. The words are unfortunate; the concept more so.

Kids are stratified by the brands of polo shirts they wear, the brand of mp3 player they carry, the style of their shoes, the names on their jeans. Identifying one another by class and social strata begins way too early -- I know of a first-grader who wore a gold-nugget bracelet to school daily, a birthday gift from his car-dealership-owning dad. I wasn't the only one to notice, probably am not the only one who remembers it -- everyone noticed it, and probably many of his classmates and teachers remember it, so many years later. Making and leaving that impression was the purpose of the bracelet. It made a statement.

In high school, the strata are even more distinctly visible: One drives a new BMW SUV into the student parking lot, another a mid-90s Chevy; others ride the school bus through the senior year. The separatenesses are unavoidable in our society.

What is avoidable is drawing attention to them and their parents, and assigning some approbation to those parents in the least-bright-and-shiny strata. I suspect they're not "emerging," they may just be what we rather sanitizedly call the "working poor."

Laura Dobbins-Beeks, who has a senior at Academic Magnet High and serves on the roundtable, supports the agreement and took it a step further, saying parents' involvement needs to be meaningful. And Myrtice Brown, PTA president at Hursey Elementary, said this would give parents more ways to participate.

"It will make a difference in the lives of Charleston County students," she said.

No doubt it would.

I don't question the motives of this group of parents. Teachers, too, want every student's parents to be actively engaged. But that's the ideal, not the reality. And to establish a system to label parents positively or negatively, no matter how sweet the intention or the language, sets up one more kind of hierarchy for students to alternately celebrate or suffer.

Imagine it: It's not enough that my shoes, jeans and hair aren't the latest styles, or that my siblings and I share a hand-me-down Dodge when it runs (and, more often, ride the bus because it doesn't run), but now my mom and dad (who hold down a total of three service-industry jobs between them) are ranked "emerging" because both of them have to work, or because they earn wages rather than salaries, and punch a clock rather than telework or flex their schedules. They're under water; they're obscure; they're hidden; they don't exist.

Navigating school isn't tough enough for these students?

Not everyone is a fan of the proposal. Jon Butzon is director of the Charleston Education Network, a nonprofit education advocacy group. He thought it a mistake to do anything that sounded like evaluating parents when that's not happening in a more rigorous way for teachers and principals, he said.

If this is such a critical piece to schools' success, then schools need to do whatever it takes to make that happen, and that means teaching parents how to be involved, he said. Many of the parents who aren't engaged likely are the same ones who didn't finish their education, he said.

Beverly McCarty is a parent and director of the nonprofit Family Resource Center, which helps parents advocate for their special-needs children. McCarty believes strongly in parent involvement, but she questioned how parents would respond to the suggestion that they're not committed to their child's education. She often hears from parents who have personal experience with schools not doing what they should, she said.

"I would make sure (the schools) were doing everything you need to before you start judging whether others are doing it, too," she said. "This just doesn't make me feel comfortable."

If we really want to engineer some social change: Why not encourage our legislature to require employers to grant paid leave to employees for service to their children's schools? The costs aren't astronomical; businesses could write off the expense as charitable donations. Schools and the community would benefit from having more parent participation. Employers would benefit from having employees who know more and feel better about their children's school experience.


Heavy lift, that. Businesses don't want interference anyway, and employers don't want to pay for time not spent on the clock, and they frankly don't want anything that distracts their employee or complicates their management of their employee.

Which is, of course, why we are where we are.

So, why not just encourage parents to participate, and leave it at that?

Elsewhere in the Lowcountry, neither Berkeley nor Dorchester 2 schools require parent involvement, but both encourage it. School-based PTA groups manage volunteer programs in suburban Dorchester 2, and Berkeley school leaders are looking at ways to track and analyze the impact of their volunteers.

Although this kind of requirement would be new for Charleston, some successful public schools already are doing this. East Cooper Montessori Charter in Mount Pleasant is a charter school, which means it's a public school governed by a school-based board of parents and community members.

Doesn't that characterize a charter school, by definition? See, charter schools are set up and governed by parents who have the time and means to be highly-engaged, and that's great for them. Traditional public schools enroll the children of the rest of our community.

The excellent-rated school wrote in its charter application that parent volunteers would be integral to its academic and financial success, and parents are asked to volunteer 40 hours each year. School Principal Jody Swanigan said it saves the school money, citing the parent who volunteered to power-wash the school (a service the school typically would've paid for) or another who volunteered his paint crew's services. Parents have done everything from cutting out laminated materials, to reviewing proposed summer reading books, to volunteering as a reading buddies, she said.

We all want our schools to be like that, and our parents to have the time, the means and the freedom represented here. Reality is, they aren't, and they don't.

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