Schools must convey message that parents are always welcome

Monday, November 10, 1997

With tears in her voice, the mother of two small children called to complain that she was being ignored by her school district. She had just transferred her kids from a religious school, and she was anxious to know what they would be taught in public school.

Strange as it may seem, the district didn't have the curriculum guides readily available for parents to see. “They won't tell me what's in the curriculum,” she told me. “Don't I have the right to know?”

Yes, you certainly do. Everything in the curriculum should be easy for any parent to review.

Stories like this—even if they concern an isolated incident—hurt public education. It only takes a few bad stories to create distrust among parents, especially those conservative religious parents who are already critical of public schools. And this distrust has fueled a movement in many parts of the country for “parental rights” legislation or state constitutional amendments.

Where public schools take parents seriously, there's little demand for legislation or amendments. These districts begin with a clear acknowledgment that parents, not school officials, have the primary right and responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education. Obviously parents must delegate some of that responsibility to educators, but they still retain the parental rights long recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, tensions between parents and schools are on the rise in many places, often because conservative religious parents (among others) are raising more and more concerns about what schools are doing. Battles are now raging over how to teach reading (whole language vs. phonics), teaching methods in general, textbooks, sex education and a host of other issues. Sure, there are some unreasonable and extreme folks on all sides of these issues. But most parents who raise questions just want to be heard and to participate in the decision-making.

Before getting defensive or irritated with questioning parents, school officials should remember that parents who take the time to complain are parents who care. What teacher wouldn't prefer parents who actually read the textbooks their kids bring home? These are the parents schools can least afford to lose. Once they get involved, concerned parents can become the most committed and enthusiastic supporters of the schools.

How can schools re-establish trust where its been lost?

In Snowline, Calif., administrators turned a parental challenge into an opportunity for change. The parents were asked to help form a new school with a curriculum that reflected their values and views about education.

A New Hampshire school district decided that fighting with parents about sex education is a destructive waste of time and resources. Instead, they invited parents not only to help design what would be taught about sexuality in health education, but also to help teach the course to their own kids.

A southern California district went beyond what it had to do and reached out to assist home-schooling parents. Now those parents spend a lot of time in the schools, working with teachers and administrators.

The solutions may vary, but the approach in successful school districts is much the same: Find creative ways to involve parents in the decision-making process. Keep parents informed about what's going on in the schools. Encourage parents to come into the schools to observe and volunteer. Accommodate whenever possible excusal requests from religious parents.

In these and other ways, schools need to convey a clear message that parents are warmly welcome in the schools, even when they raise questions or objections. The schools belong to all citizens, and we all have a stake in their success. But parents who send their kids there each day have a special right and responsibility to make sure that the schools are safe and effective places to learn.