The conversation about public education in Alabama has long been dominated by the Experts in education. When this thing called public education began, though, parents and families were integral members of the team, strengthening schools from the inside out and the outside in, alongside the Experts. We brought much to the Table of our community’s education team and expected much in return. There was a shared responsibility for the goings-on in our public schools. We were a team: the Experts and us.
But somewhere along the way, the Experts pushed us out the door saying, “We’re Experts. Trust us. Send us public money, well-fed kids; read to them, teach them how to behave, and we’ve got the rest of this education thing covered.” In short, they sent half the team home.
In too many places, this hasn’t turned out to be a winning strategy. Our schools and school communities have suffered because the team split apart. The Experts don’t want to recognize their role in shutting us out, limiting our role, and generally becoming disrespectful, even disdainful, of the much-needed perspective that parents and families bring to the team and to the Table.
It’s not my intention to create an “us” (parents and families) and “them” (Experts) dialogue, and I don’t mean to be harsh. I don’t mean to imply that the Experts are wrong or bad for our public schools. This is simply the stark result of the professionalization of education and the ever-increasing number of Experts at the Table. A Table that all too often doesn’t have an available seat for parents and families.
Parents and Families Want and Need a Connection
“There needs to be a connection between the community and the school.”
Haven’t we all felt that way? And while I’ve said those same words many times, that quote is not from me. Rather, it is the first quote mentioned in the Community Agreement composed (by Experts) of the desires of residents that participated in the Yes We Can! Birmingham movement.
Parents and families want and need a connection, an authentic partnership with our schools. We have to find a way to reconnect the team.
“Make Sure Your Child Eats Breakfast” and Other Roles and Rules
In too many cases, the only connection we have is the one defined and allowed by the Experts (see the blue box to the right to learn who these Experts are). They hold all of the cards and all of the keys to the connection parents and families seek.
The Experts dole out roles for parents and families and dictate how parents should perform those roles: “Make sure your child eats breakfast. Make time to do homework with your child. Set aside a quiet area for your child to study. Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep. Teach your child to respect the teacher and behave in the classroom. Join the parent organization.” And the list goes on.
They tell us what the rules are: when our children are considered sick enough to miss school, where we can park (and where we can’t), what time the school doors are open, when teachers are available to speak with us about our child, what supplies we are required to purchase….and the list goes on.
They happily and exhaustively list all of the things we need to do, and work hard to point the finger in our direction when our child is struggling. “Did something happen at home today? Johnny seemed distracted.” “Jane is paying less attention to her schoolwork. Has something changed in her routine or home environment?”
They willingly share information about our own children, but stop short of discussing and engaging us in school-wide struggles or initiatives.
So many rules to follow. Such a limited role we are allowed to pursue as a member of the team. The Experts have taken all of those roles from us and made all of the rules about our schools without ever consulting us.
Yet when we question something other than those issues related to our own child, such as the classroom environment or the curriculum being considered, many Experts seem distressed that we dare attempt to cross into (what they perceive to be) their turf and step to the Table without their personal invitation.
Being the Only One in an Army of Only Ones
Whenever I tried to break out of the Expert-defined role of parent in my local district and question the decisions that were made, the Experts were quick to accuse me of being the “only one”, as in “Ms. Crain, you’re the only one who has a problem with that.” As I continued asking questions and sharing my concerns with other parents and families, it turns out I wasn’t the only one after all. In fact, I am surrounded by only ones, many of whom have become close friends and allies in the push to regain a legitimate connection and our legitimate seat at the Table.
There is a huge and ever-growing army of parents and families who want, and in some cases are demanding, a seat at the Table where the decisions are made that affect our neighborhood schools.
Connecting with the Experts- It’s a Pretty Tough Task
Communication is at the heart of any connection, any authentic partnership. Yet there is a real void (more like an abyss) in the type of communication that we need to engage with the Experts about what we want for our schools and communities. We hear what the Experts have decided for our schools after they’ve made their decision. Sure, maybe they hold a public hearing to make it look like they’re listening, but we all know that the plans laid out in those public meetings were a done deal before they ever set up the meeting.
A personal favorite example: a city board of education president who stated “y’all left me hanging” to the other board members who refused to make a motion to fire a superintendent. Talk about a done deal. Or so it was supposed by that board president.
Another favorite example is the theater of the public hearing on the annual school district budget. No input from ordinary members of the public is genuinely considered, even though the law specifically requires it: “Each board shall seek input from the public concerning the proposed budget and the allocation of resources.”
We need to know about those plans and those budgets prior to the discussion phase. We need to be seated at that Table when the subject is first discussed. And the Experts really need us at the Table. Though I’m not convinced they know that yet.
Regaining Our Seat at the Table
I won’t kid you. The Table is pretty full of Experts working to improve our public schools. When we ask for our seat, they will try hard to seat us at the Kiddie Table, where the sub-committees and working groups give input that is never seriously entertained by the folks at the Big Table. But we must continue to work to regain our seat. It is our duty as parents and families…and as members of the public in our public schools. The public schools will not survive without the public’s authentic participation.
[Read any of David Mathews’ books on the public’s role in public education to find out where I get these wild ideas.]
A New Way to Jump-Start the Connection
Through this web site, the Alabama School Connection (ASC), I’ve shared information about legislation that’s being considered, done a few in-depth reports (wait till you see the results of this summer’s efforts!), and generally worked to inform parents and families about the stuff that’s being discussed at the state level (and a few local places) that will affect our children in public education in Alabama in an effort to jump-start the missing connection.
The mission of the ASC is pretty simple: share information with large numbers of parents and families so that we speak a common language with the Experts, become effective team members and ultimately become full partners in our public schools. It’s stated a little differently on the About page, but the overarching and most simply stated goal is to empower parents and families through sharing information.
Up until now, my efforts have been entirely voluntary. It’s time to make an honest organization out of the ASC, though, and I am making plans to become a non-profit news organization. During this process, you may notice a few changes, hopefully all for the better, but please let me know what is helpful and what is not. The online Family-School Partnership Academy creation is well underway, and I’m hearing from more folks who want to learn the best way to connect with their schools and districts.
Here’s an interview with the public affairs radio show “Viewpoint Alabama” that aired on June 9, 2013, where I shared the goals and purpose of the ASC and how parents and families can better engage with and advocate for our public schools.
I hope that you will not only read this stuff yourself, but share it with other parents and families to build an informed and engaged community willing to step to the Table, connect and engage in conversation with the Experts in your school and district.
We must form authentic partnerships with the Experts who control our public schools. We must be willing to do what it takes to become authentic partners. Family-school partnerships are the only reform efforts that have ever resulted in meaningful, sustainable improvement in our schools. We can’t do it without the Experts. And the Experts can’t do it without us.
P.S. For the Experts who are reading this, please read this and this. These two documents are a wonderful introduction to authentic partnerships and engagement in our public schools. Here’s a framework for building family-school partnerships that is not only helpful, but downright encouraging! Please ask us to join you at the Table the next time you have the opportunity to do so. Thank you for your continued dedication to our children and our school communities. We know we need you to help us become authentic partners in our public schools.