Advocating School Change
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Parents can be an important voice for school change. The key is that they organize and speak with a united voice. A board of education is much more likely to respond to a large organized parent group than scattered individual voices. Parents who have carefully planned and diligently organized have been able to exert considerable influence on a range of school issues.
The following are examples of concerns that parent groups have taken on:
- developing an after-school child care program
- revising the disciplinary code
- barring corporal punishment as a form of school discipline
- developing alternatives to tracking
- modifying the system of grading students
- placing a school guard at a dangerous school crossing
- reviewing textbooks to ensure they are current and free of stereotypes
- lobbying the board of education to retain educational programs being considered for elimination
- ensuring comparable resources in the district’s various schools
If parents are to make headway with issues which require board of education approval (which changes in school policy do), they will need to convince the superintendent and the board of the importance of this issue and the breadth of public support. This does not require a degree in education but it will demand effective organization and communication. Rallying parents on behalf of an issue requires considerable time and energy but, if the issue is important, it is time well-spent. Once you and other parents have identified your core concern, give your group a name to enhance its visibility.
The communication might take the form of a presentation before the board. This presentation can be made by one person or a few but it is essential that many parent supporters attend the meeting. Recruit parents to the meeting by sending out flyers, posting notices, obtaining mention in the local newspaper, and setting up a phone chain. The school may even give you names of parents with similar concerns if it supports your cause. Contact the board secretary in advance of the meeting and try to be put on the agenda. If that is not possible, parents can always speak during the period reserved for public comment. The presentation should be grounded in facts and research, and should be forceful but not hostile in tone. Make sure you have done your homework, if necessary reviewing the district’s policy manual, consulting the state department of education about applicable state regulations, and checking with other districts to find out how they handle the same issue. If you need information from your school district, it should be made available to you in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.
Parents have other tools at their disposal which they can use to marshal support for their cause. They can conduct a parent survey. If you go this route, make sure to let the school district know. Keep the survey brief and the questions neutral. They can distribute a petition. They can conduct a letter-writing campaign, targeting board of education members. They can obtain media attention by writing letters to the local newspaper, giving interviews, and distributing press releases.
If these strategies are unsuccessful in convincing the board to adopt your position, you can always take a long-range view and work to change the composition of the board. Given that school board elections usually attract a very low voter turnout, a well-organized parent group can greatly influence a board election. You might even consider running for the board yourself. Having a background in education is not a prerequisite for serving on a board but a willingness to devote considerable time is. Check with the board office to find out about filing dates and nominating procedures.