My twins, the youngest of my four children, graduate high school today, ending my 23 year relationship with K-12 public schools in Georgia.
I have been packing lunches, going on field trips and collecting for teacher gifts since August of 1993. My calendar is now cleared of curriculum nights, book fairs and school concerts. High school graduation often produces tears, but I’m wearing a slight smile. While I enjoyed being a high school student, I found college liberating in the ability to choose what I studied. And I hope my kids will as well.
All my kids received an excellent education overall in Georgia public schools. However, as a parent, I sometimes found public schools exasperating. Unlike private schools that are often under the direction of a veteran headmaster with firm policies and practices followed faithfully schoolwide, public schools race each year to meet new dictates from the district and state and federal governments. There are always new people arriving with improvement plans, whether superintendents, principals, teachers or coaches. Classroom standards can vary, something I saw clearly from having twins taking the same subjects under different teachers.
With the benefit of personal experience and the wider vantage point of writing about education for 20 years, here are five suggestions for administrators, teachers and staff to improve how parents feel about their public schools:
- Choose good leaders and allow them time: Without fail, leadership changes bring tensions and uncertainties that should abate over time -- unless the changes keep coming. My favorite years as a public school parent were the elementary school years when my children had the same principal from kindergarten through fifth grade. One of the few periods when I saw academic quality and teacher morale falter at the elementary school was when interim principals were in place.
- Hold fewer but better organized events, involve all the kids and value parent time: I once arrived at a Friday afternoon “class talent show” to which all parents had been invited. About 15 parents attended. But in a class of 26 or 27, the show featured five students who lip-synched and told corny jokes. It turns out that the five kids organized the show as part of a group project. I walked back to the parking lot with a physician whose child was not among the five. She had shifted patients to attend and vowed never again.
- Communicate more and answer emails: I am surprised at the number of school employees who either don’t answer emails or respond weeks later. And that goes up the chain; I have sent emails in praise of teachers to superintendents, principals and school board members with no acknowledgement. I have relayed offers of help to teachers with no response. (The parents who contact me with school problems often do so in frustration over being ignored by the administration.)
- Avoid delegating tasks to students that are more effectively handled by staff. As an example, parents go to events like Curriculum Night to hear teacher expectations and classroom policies. No one benefits when nervous and under-prepared students are delegated to explain this critical information through skits or panels and spend the 30 minutes hissing at each other, “It’s your turn to talk” and “You forgot your line.” Also, as a parent volunteer, I've dutifully arrived to chaperone float building or pep rally sign-making to discover the students designated to get supplies or create the designs have not done so. Schools blame a lot of mishaps on poor execution by students, whether names misspelled in yearbooks or kids left out of group project presentations, but it’s the job of staff to oversee students.
- Show parents you know their children: For the most part, I felt teachers knew my kids and were rooting for them. But not always. One easy way for schools to assure parents their kids are being seen is to adopt the narrative progress report, something private schools understand. Rather than sending a checklist report card, many private school require teachers write short essays about students, citing specifics about how each excelled or struggled. I ran into one of my kids’ former teachers who now leads a top Atlanta private, and she told me this was a revered and effective tool at her school.
Next week, I'll share my tips to parents, one of them being to act on their concerns. I used to pride myself on never taking any problem to the level of the principal. Now, I realize that was a fault, not a virtue.