My mother passed away in early June. There are days when I still find myself weak. But I gather strength from the lessons she taught me. Our home in Anacostia (they call it the poor part of town) shimmered with books. She proudly escorted each of my three brothers and me to the local library branch where we obtained our first official ID’s. She cleared the unfinished basement and stocked it with three desks and a chalkboard where my brothers and I played school. I always insisted on being the teacher.
After her husband and our father left when I was about six, she trudged on alone. A Howard University graduate, she found a meaningful job in the federal and then local government and poured her life into her clients and into us. She became a Catholic after my father vanished, and, like all converts, she memorized her newfound faith. All of us children attended Catholic school, and the white nuns who taught us honored their vow to give Negro children the best they had for little wages and “heavenly” reward.
When I later married and then became a father, I searched out my new neighborhood in Upper Manhattan (while I attended Columbia) for a similar place to nurture my first-born. But the Catholic schools in the area seemed distant and removed. My wife and I settled for private schools at first. When the time came, we enrolled our eldest in the famed Riverside Church preschool, and then Bank Street. Somewhere around the time she reached the age of six, her teachers at Bank Street recommended she be retained for another year in her same grade despite her clear academic dominance. When we learned that almost all the other black children had been similarly “saved,” we pulled her out of the school and moved to Clinton Hill in Brooklyn.
When we first enrolled our daughter in the public school across the street, they tried to place her back in first grade because of her diminutive stature. But we insisted, and she entered second grade in a new Gifted and Talented program designed to attract gentrifying parents like us. Her teacher was outstanding, and my wife and I celebrated our good fortune. With high spirits, I attended the first PTA meeting, only to find eight parents literally fighting with each other over something I could never figure out.
I made a vow to get involved and ran for PTA president. I won, and, over the next five years, watched a school transform. Attendance at our monthly meetings grew from a few to plenty. As our parent association expanded, so, too, did the depth of the school’s offerings. Our PTA raised money, put on original plays, weeded out low performing teachers, replaced a sleepy principal, stocked the library, and hosted Career Days, open mics for parents, holiday galas, and father/child days. By the time my time at the school grew nigh, local politicians considered a stop at our monthly meetings a necessary function.
When our second child was born, my wife and I continued our mission at a new school in an adjacent neighborhood where we had moved for more space. The presidents of the adjoining PTA’s in our 16,000-family district elected me president of the PTA presidents (a position mandated by city-wide Parent Association rules), and the goals shifted. I worked hard to educate the other PTA’s about the “Blue Book” which governed parent power in New York. Parents discovered they had a mandated place in their children’s schools. They had a right to block the tenure of poor performing new teachers. They had a right to challenge the appointment of a principal they did not trust. Parents had a right to sit on a local school restructuring committee where their signature was not suggested, but required in order to release the school budget (unlike in DC).
Back then, school districts in New York had local boards, an outgrowth of the Brownsville disruptions. Board members were not always scrupulous in their dealings, especially with some personnel staffing decisions, but it did not matter. Parents were unleashed in the schools, and everyone was on notice. Especially children. Public education became a communal event, and parents were no longer deemed ill-advised interlopers in their children’s education. Suddenly, parents and community belonged at the table, and not underneath.
When we moved to DC in 1995 (with our third, young daughter in tow), I expected to pick up the banner of parent involvement as a key ingredient in the success of any vibrant school. But it was not to be. In DC, there were no rules legislating meaningful community involvement in local schools. PTA’s were not required; LSRT’s were strictly advisory, and PTA presidents did not even have to have children in the school they claimed to represent.
There were no monthly meetings with parent leaders and the superintendent. Principals did not have to consider parental voices in their staffing and budgetary decisions. Poor teachers were safe as long as the principal wanted it. PTA’s not only did not have to exist; they did not have to meet. Principals could even self-appoint parent leaders with no PTA election to substantiate their selection. Predictably, entire buildings buckled under the weight of old paint and insulated administrators.
After two months, I heard about a loophole in the whole arrangement. All my wife and I had to do was find a “connection,” and we could move our children out of the range of the neighborhood schools she, an Ivy League grad, and her brother, a doctor, once attended, and enroll our children across Rock Creek Park in the “whiter” part of town where a slew of attractive choices awaited.
We took the advice, and, each morning for many years, we transported our two youngest children across Military Road to Ward 3 and waved them inside. We sent our oldest to School Without Walls, and I poured my rejuvenated energies into the Home School Association there.
Once “out of boundary,” we found vibrant parent bodies which demanded excellence and raised supplemental funds to help provide it. Principals had to be engaged if they wanted to retain their employment. Weak teachers were assisted with PTA-sponsored classroom aides. If the weakness persisted, they somehow disappeared. Parents met regularly with whomever they wanted. No concern was too small. I was impressed.
Now that my children are grown, I still look back on the lessons learned. I was told once it takes three things to craft a great school: a visionary principal, a motivated faculty, and an engaged parent body. Somewhere along the way, the parent portion was abandoned. The current model being floated on national TV and in other forums views parents and community as an obstacle to be overcome. Highly touted charter schools boast about their programs which generally remove linkage from the equation altogether. Yes, most require parents to sign “pledges” to encourage their children, but lengthy school days, weekend classes, shortened summers, and sequestered “prep schools” are all promoted as the magical elixir. If these poor, mostly black and brown children could just have the contact with their undereducated, misguided community diminished, or at least tightly controlled, then many could be saved.
What this rationale ignores is the need for a true triumvirate. Just as parents in the affluent sections of DC have a role to play (something defeated Mayor Fenty and surrogate Chancellor Michelle Rhee never dared to ignore), so do all parents and guardians across the city. The answers to the problems in public education will not be found unless and until the families of the children we purport to care so much about are also involved in shaping the solutions we espouse. Without significant parent and community involvement and empowerment (parents know where the bad eggs lay), all our newfangled solutions become nothing more than just another clumsy missionary wave with no real conversion in sight.