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Parents Are the Key to Meaningful Reform

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This week, the feature article in The Christian Science Monitor magazine vets through both the virtues and challenges of turnaround schools. These reform-minded initiatives seek to improve some of the worst performing schools by implementing pioneering and often Draconian measures. In the form of School Improvement Grants, federal funding is available to support such efforts, albeit, with strings attached. To receive funding, a school selects from a relatively limited range of rehabilitation options, the most severe of which can lead to the sweeping ouster of administration and staff.

For years, the Department of Education has juggled newfangled programs aimed at fixing failing schools. It would be unfair to accuse policy makers of sitting idle while the education system falters; reforms are implemented at a dizzying rate, even if they work against what many consider beneficial for schools and students. New York City, for example, is nearly a decade into an experiment to break large, struggling schools, into smaller, specialized, schools. It seemed to work -- at least, for a while.

My school is one of four that supplanted a storied but deteriorating institution as part of the "smaller is better" philosophy. While early years yielded positive results, over time, we're reminded that old habits die hard. Here's the thing: despite the DOE's stalwart effort to revamp the structure within my school building, little significant change has occurred in the surrounding community. And so, the same issues -- gang violence, lack of services, disrupted home lives -- still impact our kids. And while these factors are not the primary determinant of a child's capacity to succeed, they certainly influence their access to education and make a decisive contribution to overall school culture.

Take the following anecdote from Parent-Teacher conferences, which occurred just last week.

On the second day of conferences, I passed a colleague in the stairwell. She is, in my opinion, one of the best teachers in our school -- admirably well-organized, exceedingly fair, irreproachably professional. After a quick exchange of formalities, our conversation broached the lamentable, if not appalling, attendance of the previous evening.

"How many parents did you have come?" I asked casually.

"Six."

"That's all? How many students do you have?"

She frowned. "A little over one hundred."

Without support and buy-in from the school community, i.e. teachers, parents, and students, these turnaround initiatives are nothing more than a well-intentioned rearrangement of furniture. One can discharge an entire staff and rename a school, but without addressing the rudimentary, deep-seeded causes of a problem, little change will occur. Yes, the structures and philosophy within the particular building have a sway on school culture and yes, good teachers can make a difference, but let us not remain heedless of the factors educators cannot control.

Children are in school less than a third of their day. Yet, when we assign responsibility for problems beleaguering student performance, teachers are attributed with what feels like ninety-nine percent of the blame. It doesn't add up. The remaining two-thirds of a child's day are presumably spent in the home or community. That's where parents must step in.

If parents are unwilling to turn off the TV and demand that children spend adequate time doing homework, then what can teachers do? Teenagers might have you believe otherwise, but a parental word of encouragement or reprimand is priceless leverage -- motivational capital, if you will. When parents are involved and hold both themselves and their children accountable, academic performance and behavior improves.

They say it takes a village to raise a child; in few situations is a school mutually exclusive from its surrounding community. As such, the purview and responsibility of these education reforms must extend beyond the confines of a solitary building. School Improvement Grants might do well to follow in the footsteps of far-reaching programs like the Harlem Children's Zone, which both take into account and work with the greater context of a school.

The community-based approach may be precarious, but it's well worth the effort. Instead of laying-off droves of teachers -- many of whom have vital relationships with students and families -- school improvement measures should additionally consider how best to support parents and families. Once we get behind these stakeholders, we might finally see meaningful, lasting progress in our schools.

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