Solving School Problems
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Who should you contact if your child has a problem? As a general rule, speak with the teacher first with any concerns about your child’s education and then move to the next level—the principal—only if you are not satisfied with the teacher’s response or she does not have the power to effect the necessary change. Teachers have control over most of what happens in their classroom but lack the power to make changes in a school practice or policy.
A principal is the school’s gatekeeper and has control over most practices of the school but not school district policy. The principal may be inclined to back up the teacher so be prepared to give compelling reasons for your request. For school problems outside the classroom (for example, on the playground or at the bus stop), seek out the principal or the guidance counselor.
If you are not satisfied after talking with the teacher and principal and want to pursue the matter further, consider talking with the superintendent (or assistant superintendent in a large district) but bear in mind that the superintendent is likely to support the principal’s decision. (As a matter of courtesy, let the principal know of your plan to contact the superintendent.) At the local level, your ultimate recourse is the board of education. You can speak up at a board meeting at a “residents’ forum” or you can contact a board of education member individually about your concerns. This is the time to take advantage of your connections. The board member may be willing to intervene with a school official or bring the matter to the attention of the full board. To pursue your concerns beyond the local level, contact county or state education officials or parent advocacy groups.
Going over the heads of school staff without speaking with them first may alienate the people with whom you will need to work cooperatively. So respect the school hierarchy in solving school problems and don’t jump rank except in unusual situations. But you should not hesitate to climb this ladder one rung at a time to pursue serious concerns until you find somebody who has the power and willingness to solve this problem. You may lose the good will of the teacher or principal but you may gain an important change in your child’s education.
If you have a problem with a district-wide policy, you may want to begin at the top—with the superintendent (or the appropriate central administrator). Find out the rationale for the policy. You may be able to persuade the district to grant you an exception to the policy (often called a variance) so be prepared to justify your request with a convincing argument and outside documentation, if necessary. Schools, like most institutions, are reluctant to grant exceptions to policies except under unusual circumstances. If medical or emotional issues are involved, a letter from your child’s physician to the school district can be influential. As an example, districts may be willing to grant parents’ request that their child attend an elementary school other than the one in their attendance area if presented with a compelling reason for the change.
If the school agrees to take action on your request, follow up with a letter expressing appreciation as well as your understanding of the action to be taken. This letter will help to prod the school district to honor its agreement. The wheels of public school education can turn slowly and sometimes even get stuck.