By Judy Molland
Georgia public schools are struggling to pull out of an academic slump that puts many of them at the bottom of the nation’s education rankings.
Alabama plans to lay off 4,000 public school teachers and 2,000 support staff in the spring. The city of Providence, R.I., is cutting 128 school positions, slashing funding for the arts and eliminating elementary science and technology-enrichment classes. In Seattle, the school district has laid off 193 teachers and other school staff; east of the city, two Head Start programs have been canceled. And in Minneapolis, some 700 teachers received pink slips during the last school year.
In both rural and urban schools nationwide, parents are watching their children go without art, music and the extra academic help they may need. Just about everywhere, state-level budget cuts have landed squarely in America’s classrooms – at a time when the federal government is pushing schools to up their education standards.
What’s a Parent to Do?
This school year has left many parents exasperated by the weakened state of public schools. Frustration has led some moms and dads to explore private schooling for their children. But for many, that isn’t an option.
With school districts saying there’s only so much they can do with the money they have, what can parents do to ensure a quality education for their kids?
For Maureen Graff, principal of Rooney Ranch Elementary School in Lakewood, Colo., it starts in the classroom. “Parents feel like they are out of control, because of the money problems, but they do have control,” she affirms. “Parents can come in and make suggestions. It’s about participating in the process, and once teachers and administrators see that parents are truly involved, they will listen.”
Graff describes how some parents at her school suggested putting up a “Needs Board” by the classroom door, to highlight things that the class wants but can’t afford. As a result, people have seen this, contributed, and saved the school a lot of money.
Parents who are able to spend time volunteering have always been invaluable to schools, and are even more important now.
“The first positions to go in a district are usually the non-teacher positions, like teacher aides, and parents can really help fill those gaps,” says the Parent Teacher Association’s Karen Slay.
Parents who are computer programmers, artists or who speak a second language can also lend their services. And, in many places, they’re doing just that:
• Raymond Sierpina, principal of Tilton Elementary School in Haverhill, Mass., asked his Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) for help when the school lost three kindergarten aides, an office aide, a janitor and a librarian to budget cuts. Parents immediately stepped in to fill the gaps.
• At Westwood Elementary School in Los Angeles, parents are running enrichment activities, including a chess club, a math club and a Spanish club.
Don’t have the time to volunteer? There are other ways to take action. In a time of dire financial straits, experts say it’s crucial that entire communities rally to support their local schools. Parents can be key players in reaching out to community resources, since they often know the neighborhood better than school staff.
“People outside often see the school system as a big bureaucracy that’s hard to approach,” says Anne Henderson, senior consultant with the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. Parents, she says, can map the assets in their community, finding local artists, performers or technology experts who are willing to offer their time to the school. They can also contact local and state arts programs, which may offer free workshops and performances for schools.
Seeking out this kind of help builds a sense of community that makes everyone responsible for providing children with a good education – not just a town’s parent body.
Rising to the Occasion
Can all of this really be accomplished? Consider these success stories from across the country:
• When Rooney Ranch Elementary School in Lakewood, Colo., lost its crossing guards, parents immediately went to work. They talked with people in the neighborhood, including those who didn’t have school-age children. They approached people who live near corners where crossing guards were needed. And they got an entire crossing guard enterprise up and running – covering 40 sites near the school and involving the entire community.
• In Roxbury, Mass., parents at James P. Timilty Middle School learned last year that their beloved Project Promise program would have to be cut. The program not only pays to extend classes more than the traditional 45 minutes, but also provides teachers with more planning time, extending the school day to 4 p.m. It is credited with turning a tough middle school into a high-achieving institution. Unwilling to accept this loss, parents lobbied, involved the community, worked with school administrators and raised $600,000 to save the program.
• When Lorrie Burns, a parent in Eugene, Ore., heard about the budget cuts hitting her sons’ school, she organized a plasma donation to raise money to prevent the school from laying a teacher off. Once other parents got over the initial shock of the idea, they reacted enthusiastically. About 150 parents showed up to sell their plasma, raising several thousand dollars.
If you think that you alone cannot do much to improve your school, you are probably right. But if you collaborate with other parents and organizations, you can make a difference. There is strength and power in numbers. • 1 parent: A fruitcake • 2 parents: A fruitcake and a friend • 3 parents: Troublemakers • 5 parents: “Let’s have a meeting” • 10 parents: “We’d better listen” • 25 parents: “Our dear friends” • 50 parents: A powerful organization
Become an Advocate for Education
Strength in Numbers
Fund raising isn’t the only thing parents can and should do, however. Raising money to cover a gap during one year is fine, but what about the next year and the one after? In the long run, experts say, the only solution is to become an advocate for education.
“Organize, organize, organize!” urges Slay. “Parents can no longer afford to be passive. When our legislators get 2,000 letters from their own constituents, or their own constituents are tying up their phones 24/7, saying ‘We need full funding for education,’ then that makes a difference.”
Jo Loss, vice president of the California PTA, reminds parents that as long as state legislators believe they won’t get re-elected if they impose more taxes, then they’re not going to shift the budget’s priorities to make an adequate investment in education. But if they’re hearing from well-organized, vocal parents, that can change that picture.
How do you go about doing this?
• Find like-minded people – parents, teachers or administrators – and create a team. Begin by talking to your principal and attending school board meetings.
• Know the facts and figures, along with the issues. “Do the homework!” says Patti di Turi, public relations director for the Georgia PTA.
School finance is very complicated, and parents lose their effectiveness and credibility if they don’t have a sense of the big picture, di Turi says. “Only by understanding school finance at the federal, state and local levels, and the restrictions that are put on each one of these levels, can parents see what they can do, and who they can team up with.”
Parents who don’t hesitate to contact their school board members, their mayors, their city councilors, their county committees, their state legislators or their governor, present the kind of organized political voice that really makes a difference.
• Involve students with lobbying efforts. “That way, you are modeling for kids how important it is to advocate for a position that you are passionate about, and then you are also modeling how to do it,” says Janine Bempechat, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University, and author of Getting Our Kids Back on Track. Young people learn that advocacy is a long process, and that they need to be patient and organized. Forming a social action club focused on something the kids are passionate about, something they don’t have that they wish they did, becomes an excellent lesson in civic action.
If you think that you alone cannot do much to improve your school, you are probably right. But if you collaborate with other parents and organizations, you can make a difference. There is strength and power in numbers.
• 1 parent: A fruitcake
• 2 parents: A fruitcake and a friend
• 3 parents: Troublemakers
• 5 parents: “Let’s have a meeting”
• 10 parents: “We’d better listen”
• 25 parents: “Our dear friends”
• 50 parents: A powerful organizationReprinted from “Collaboration Counts,” part of a package of tips for parents from the organization Parent Leadership Associates.
Parents Do Have Power
Budget cuts have driven parents to organize scores of organizations advocating for education. And advocacy works! Here are just a few inspirational stories:
• A coalition of parent groups in Boston, including the Boston Parent Organizing Network, restored almost $40 million to the city’s education budget. When parents heard about budget cuts slated for the Boston public schools, they went to the mayor, and then to state officials. The lengthy process involved lobbying, public hearings, and numerous meetings. Funding cuts totaling $120 million were slated for the schools, but as a result of all this organizing, that sum was reduced to $81 million.
• In San Francisco, parents were able to save arts programs for their elementary schools. With the support of the city’s PTA, a strong advocate of maintaining arts programs, parents approached city officials and succeeded in getting a task force set up to examine the needs of their schools. Public hearings were held and, as a result, the city of San Francisco stepped in to provide funding for arts programs in local elementary schools.
• Parent advocacy groups in New York have successfully lobbied to increase taxes on the wealthiest residents in order to prevent cuts to city schools. As a result of massive lobbying, the state budget restored 90 percent of the education cuts proposed by the governor. One of the biggest events occurred on May 3, 2003, when ACORN, the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, held a rally for public education in Albany – 50,000 people attended the event. Actress and public school parent Cynthia Nixon spoke, as well as students, who described how they have to alternate nights taking textbooks home and walk an hour to school because there are not enough buses.
In spite of the tough situation many schools find themselves in, educators and parents do see a positive side.
“There’s a sense of urgency now with all these budget cuts and, for parents, that’s a real opportunity,” says Adam Kernan-Schoss, president of Parent Leadership Associates, a group that works to support the development of parent leaders in the schools. Teachers and administrators recognize now that they can’t do this hard work by themselves, and are welcoming parents enthusiastically, Kernan-Schoss says. And ultimately, all the evidence points to the fact that when parents are engaged in their children’s learning, their children do better in school.
• Parent Leadership Associates – www.plassociates.org, 859-233-9849 – This organization is based on the idea that knowledgeable, engaged parents improve student achievement. It offers a wide range of materials, workshops and strategic advice to parent groups.
• National Parent-Teacher Association – www.pta.org, 800-307-4PTA – The largest volunteer child advocacy organization in the nation, its “Five Cents Makes Sense For Education” campaign calls for at least five cents of every tax dollar to go toward public education.
• Getting Our Kids Back on Track, by Janine Bempechat, Jossey-Bass, 2000. Offers practical advice on how to supplement your school’s programs to help children reach their full potential.
• What the Rest of Us Can Learn from Homeschooling, by Linda Dobson, Crown Publishing, 2003. Provides tips for parents on nurturing individual growth and ensuring academic success, regardless of what’s going on at school.