Getting Engaged

/ 2 October 2006 / Parents United

Tricia Cornell, Minnesota Parent Magazine, October 02, 2006 –

You’re already making brownies

Is there more you can do for your school?

“So, how was school today?” It can start as simply as that. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself in your legislator’s office discussing the pros and cons of vouchers.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Kate Towle, an engaged parent if ever there was one, has seen enough parents move from the basics – like reading to their kids – to skilled advocacy work, to know there’s definitely a connection. She came up with the Parent Engagement Wheel (see page 10) as a conceptual tool to illustrate some of the steps in between, including volunteering in schools and connecting with other parents.

I talked with Kate and Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, about how parents can get involved in improving education for their own kids and for all Minnesota children.

Tricia Cornell: What does it mean to be an engaged parent?

Mary Cecconi: A parent getting the child up in the morning and getting the child fed and making sure she has the essential elements to get to school – that’s parent engagement right there. And, for a lot of people, that is the absolute most they can do. We don’t minimize that at all. But you can come all the way around the wheel until the parents are actually advocating at the state or school district level for better policies for their kids’ schools.

TC: How do you get yourself from one pie piece to the next pie piece?

MC: When I started, I was actively engaged in fundraising in my child’s school. That’s where a lot of people start. After a while, what the school was asking for wasn’t money for field trips, it was money for staff. So I started immediately, with tremendous venom, turning all this anger on the school district, saying, “What do you mean we have to sell wrapping paper to buy a teacher? How ridiculous!” And then I got involved in a much bigger issue, the budget, and I saw that the school district doesn’t have the money. The money comes from the state. And that turned my attention [to state-level issues].

In some ways you’re pushed up the ladder if you truly want to make the change. Once you see where the decision is made, you say, “That’s where I have to go next.”

Kate Towle: I think that’s a very typical story, the piece about going through the anger, particularly in the last few years where the quality of education has started declining and the education income at the state level hasn’t kept up with the cost of inflation. If you’re like me and have two children, you start to see that the second child is not getting the quality of education that the first child did. And it’s very alarming.

What really turned the tide for me was a parent in leadership at my children’s school who came up to me and said, “You look like you have leadership qualities. We need you in positions of leadership at this school.” And that made all the difference in the world to me. It’s anybody’s guess whether I would have gone there on my own without that invitation. And she didn’t just leave me alone. She partnered with me and mentored me.

MC: And that’s very true. We find that parent-to-parent works better. That’s really where it all starts, one parent saying to another, “We need you. Can you come? We need your voice at the table.”

TC: That strikes me, that it was another parent, not a teacher or principal or school board member.

KT: You asked me before, “What are some of the barriers [to parental engagement in education]?” I think there’s some intimidation on the part of school employees and teachers when parents become more engaged. I think there’s a belief that it could create more work.

MC: I also think that that belief is founded in reality. My background is as a teacher. I also have a degree in administration and have been a school board member. And there are parents who become actively involved and believe that they should change the way that the school is. Let’s say you have five really very committed parents and they have very strong beliefs about the curriculum. Let’s say everyone backs away and allows those parents to say these books should be taught and these should be banned. The administration, the school board, and the principals have to be very careful – as do parents – about how they deal with this situation.

The whole idea is what will be best for the school. Not your child. Not just your child. As a school board member, I had to close a school that benefited my child in order for the whole to work.

TC: How does a parent walk that fine line?

KT: Mary, as a mentor, has watched me go through this process. I have a favorite author – his name is Paolo Coelho. He says that an idiot is someone who makes a threat or complains and believes that they have taken action. And that gives parents a bad name – all the complaining, all the making threats to the union and the school board.

The more you start to forge relationships with people, the more compassion you have for their work. You see they’re trying to make a difference. You see yourself as an ally and then together you start to create action steps, rather than saying: “If you don’t do this for me…” or “If you don’t get this particular logistic worked out for my son…” you start to see your child [as] very connected to the success of other children.

MC: You learn. When you start out, you think, “This is the problem. I know what the problem is.” Then, once you start peeling the onion and learning more, you think, “Oops! Maybe that wasn’t the problem. Maybe these administrators, maybe these teachers, they kind of know something.”

Parents United tells parents to have a really good relationship with your school board and your superintendent. That doesn’t mean support everything they do or [treat them as if] they walk on water. But a parent who is connected with the school board and the administration is able to pick up the phone and say, “Can you tell me why this is?” And they’ll get a call back. The parent who’s saying, “You’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that” – it’s not going to go anywhere.

KT: I find that such parents get very frustrated and can do a lot of damage. Many, many of the parents I partner with are eager for a fight. It’s not that we don’t have a struggle or a fight on our hands, it’s how we do that. Because if we come at everything with our dukes up, we can do more harm than good.

TC: Can you talk about some concrete examples of issues where parents can make a difference?

MC: People always talk about class size. But you know what? In Stillwater, there are 10,000 students. To reduce class sizes in K-12 by one is $750,000. I think it’s really important that people hold onto reality and understand that cost.

There are ways to reduce class size in a targeted way. In Stillwater, some parents got together with the teachers and decided they wanted to target their funds to K-3. So a couple of years ago, they went to all-day kindergarten. Then they brought down class sizes in grades one, two, and three. But in order to do that the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classes had more kids. The teachers and the parents made that decision.

KT: There are some simple ways to get involved. Let’s not underestimate the importance of reading to our children each night and really becoming allies with their teacher. I spent a little time talking to one of my son’s teachers about math. I said, “He’s really having a hard time, and with the class sizes, you go too quickly in a day. What can I do?” And she came up with a very simple matching game. It was an eye-opener for me.

MC: There’s a national program called Bucket Brigade. Parents come into school and play simple games with the children. Not only does that help your children, because your children are able to see you there, but you maybe can help a child whose parent doesn’t have the time.

If you engage with your kids and their schools, from the time they’re very little, you gain so much. When they’re in, say, junior high and you wonder what’s happening in junior high and what’s happening at that party, you can pick up the phone and find that mom or dad you hung out with in kindergarten and ask, “Do you know what’s going on?”

KT: As much as I want to say, “Oh, it takes patience and it takes time to move around that pie,” I also want to issue a call of alarm for people who are ready, to get more engaged [now]. It’s time for us to find something within that allows us to move outside of our family to the rest of our community. Even if you choose to move to the suburbs because you don’t like being in a metropolitan district, that’s not going to take away the problems because our education issues are not just going away. They may be shape shifting and moving farther out into other areas, but they are there until we talk about them and create policies that support families.