Sunday, April 18, 2010

Addressing a Losing Proposition: Low Performing Schools in Poor Community

Tod Robberson's take on a persistently maddening issue low performing schools in Southern Dallas, is interesting, accurate on some levels, challenging at some points and, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, (just kidding Tod) missing the point on something that I think is key.

Parental engagement in public education tends to be an issue everywhere and under age pregnancy with its accompanying drop out rate, causes and exacerbates nearly every other issue associated with poverty.

Tod makes a very good point when he says, "This newspaper and others who advocate on behalf of southern Dallas can badger City Hall all we want about inattention to quality-of-life issues like code enforcement and crime. We can keep lamenting the lack of business investment south of the Trinity and Interstate 30. But there's a significant component to the north-south disparity in Dallas that starts right at the doorsteps of southern Dallas residents themselves: the importance of parental involvement in their children's academic lives."

It's a point that I think is inarguable. No public institution: no church, no school, no other entity can take the place of the home. It is important, however, that each of these institutions provide critical support for families which promote and aid the involvement of parents.

Any parent that has done a decent job of rearing children (its safe to say, at our best, we all make mistakes and experience some level of failure), have done so because we been aided by friends, families, other parents, churches and schools which have shared our values and given us the benefit of their wisdom and support. Support doesn't always mean financial. When I was a pastor, I used to counsel parents (single and two parent families), that the selection of 'god-parents', isn't supposed to mean ready baby sitters, or financiers. They are to be people who share the values of the parents and who are trusted and willing to make the commitment to rear those children with those values, should something happen to them. A few parents were insulted, still others got the message: this child is your responsibility.

The real problem is many of these parents are coming from homes that are themselves fractured. Not just divorce and not just out of wedlock births, but many of the psycho social pathologies associated with cycles and generations of poverty. Under educated parents; lack of affordable childcare, the increased cost of rearing children on one income (even if that income is a 'living wage' income), the cost clothing and food - and the immaturity and some levels of irresponsibility of some of the parents, is much more pronounced than when I left the pastorate five years ago. And while no institution is designed to take the place of family, those which have the responsibility of providing the support which help parents by giving them the tools and insight necessary for their job have not adequately re-invented themselves to do so.

Parents whose academic experiences have been less than successful, won't have the ability to help children with new math formulas now taught in school. Parents who have dropped out of high school or dropped out earlier, aren't equipped for 'academic rigor'.

There are parents who want to be engaged in their children's academic life. But I have talked with parents who either work shifts, or work is so far from home, that it makes it virtually impossible for them to make PTA meetings or parent teacher meetings. This is especially difficult if they have more than one child.

In many cases grandparents, neighbors or other relatives have been the answer to these problems - but fractured, unreliable or unavailable extended families make it difficult for this to a contemporary solution.

There is another piece of this which neither Tod, nor very many other critics (or those who offer critiques) don't take into account: schools can be very unfriendly places for parents in poor communities. This has nothing to do with technology. But it has nothing to do with 'customer service' either.

Lucy Hackamack, principal of Spruce Middle School, refers to parents as 'clients'. That really is part of the problem. Dr. Hackamack, whose legitimate hard work at a school that is essentially reconstituted, uses language that undermines the nature of public education. Schools are democratic institutions. Parents are not 'clients' they are stake holding citizens. They deserve more respect and reverence than someone who shows up at the school on 'Career Day'.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case in schools in urban settings.

I have personally seen, and worked with parents of have told me about being berated, disrespected and treated dismissively by school administrators. At CDM, we've sought to intervene with parents who have been treated that way. It begins with the principal (who in this case is, thankfully, no longer there). But these are stories that often don't get told.

In many cases, parents have to be taught what their rights and responsibilities are, as the advocates and responsible parties for their own children. They have to be taught, how to read a report card, the difference between the report cards measure and TAKS scores. How homework is given out. How books are distributed or why their children don't have books to take home. They also need to be communicated with beyond those times when their children get in trouble.

Part of this backdrop has to do with the inordinate emphasis on and pressure placed upon teachers by standardized testing. But its not the only reason. Parents and those who work in local schools tend to approach one another defensively from the outset. The definitions or roles, responsibilities, the setting aside of personal feelings and the dreams and ambitions of parents for their children are things that ought to be clearly understood. The fact is that there are times when teachers do not understand, and when school administrators appear not to want to understand. And parents (and grandparents and great-grandparents) simply do not know.

So what's the solution?

The traditional role of community churches has been to mentor, tutor and provide services (after school programs, for example). The reinvention that can lead to changes in public education in poor communities like South Dallas, could be an intermediary role. Where parents, teachers and administrators can be introduced to one another, before school starts. There can be 'actions' during which principals, school board trustees and administrators can welcome parents to or back to school. Sessions during which returning parents can talk about unresolved issues that have impacted their children's academic performance, and counselors who are available to help parents and teachers deal with personal and community issues that tend to impact effective performance on both sides. In the case of one parent - a father who came to school to discuss his child's poor performance, he tried to explain that the little girl's mother had been killed and it was suspected that she actually might have witnessed the murder. When asked by a school official how long ago that was, he replied that it happened about a year or so ago. The school official told him, 'Well, she should be over that by now'! This is an incident we know about, what about incidents in which teachers don't know about an emotional trauma a child has experienced?

The easiest default position is that poor performing schools are the fault of irresponsible parents. Teachers have unions to defend them against charges of incompetence. The performance of low-income parents is profiled by statistics, test scores and the opinions of people who drive through their communities on their way somewhere else, or the vaunted 'tax payer' who doesn't realize that his or her dollars are being spent in ways that help perpetuate inequity.

Ultimately we have to come to grips with the fact that parents from low income communities and poor performing schools, are not hiding their genius children and sending the worst ones to public schools. They send the only children they have. Churches and schools can for more effective strategic alliances to serve as resources to help those parents do a better job.

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